Piano Etudes: Jeremy Nicholas Surveys Some of the Greatest Sets of Piano Studies, Works That Celebrate Technique and Often Transcend 'Studying' to Become Creations of Pure Musical Poetry

By Nicholas, Jeremy | Gramophone, May 2013 | Go to article overview

Piano Etudes: Jeremy Nicholas Surveys Some of the Greatest Sets of Piano Studies, Works That Celebrate Technique and Often Transcend 'Studying' to Become Creations of Pure Musical Poetry


Nicholas, Jeremy, Gramophone


Scales and studies: they're the bane of every young musician's life--and the basis of a strong, reliable technique. For pianists, the Italian studio or essercizio can be found occasionally in the works of Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), but it was the early 19th century, with the advance of the piano as an instrument and the concomitant development of piano technique, that saw the publication of a great many books of piano etudes. There were collections by Czerny, Bertini, Cramer, Clementi (Gradus ad Parnassum), Burgmuller and Hanon--and these are only some of the best known. If you can track down a copy, Schwann VMS480 is an LP that offers a rewarding survey of etudes by 15 composers from Scarlatti to Khachaturian.

Some of these etudes have made their way on to CD but you'll never hear any of them in the concert hall, principally because they are brief pieces with restrictive thematic material, a passage or motif that exploits one particular technical difficulty. They are intended for private study--or an audience of one, at most: your piano teacher. And woe betide you if you haven't been practising.

From this type of study (little more than a finger exercise) evolved the more sophisticated composition that concerns us, one designed to improve the performer's mechanism in private and to display virtuosity in public. Chopin was the first composer to produce a set of concert etudes in which musical substance was married with technical difficulty, works in which, without fail, the mechanical problem directly produced the beauty of the music. In his Op 10 and Op 25, Chopin exceeds all earlier models in harmonic invention, melodic inspiration and technical development, extending the range of tonality and revolutionising finger technique in the process. Published in 1833 and 1837 respectively, the two sets form the Magna Carta of Romantic piano technique and provide a role model for all those that followed.

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(10) Moscheles: 12 Characteristic Studies, Op 95 (1836-37)

Piers Lane pf

Hyperion (B) CDH55387 (2/04 (R))

Moscheles's (1794-1870) 24 Etudes, Op 70, precede Chopin's Op 10 by seven years. Chopin must have known them, for heuses similar figurations in Op 10 No 1and the chromatic runs in Op 10 No 2are similar to Moscheles's Op 70 No 3; but though Op 70 contains some gems, the set is, unlike Chopin's, much inferior in its melodic appeal and consistent invention. Without a complete recording of Op 70, turn to Moscheles's uneven but often inspired Op 95.

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(9) Henselt: 12 Etudes caracteristiques, Op 2 (1837-38)

Michael Ponti pf

Vox (M) (2) (D) CDX5151

It appears unlikely that Henselt (1814-89) was aware of Chopin's two sets when he wrote his own Etudes, two sets of 12studiescovering all 24 major and minor keys. Op 2 includes his once-popular (and very difficult) 'Si oiseau j'etais' (No 6, recorded by Rachmaninov). Michael Ponti is on blistering form on two discs (now download-only) that usefully include selections from sets of studies by other pianist-composers.

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(8) Liszt: 12 Etudes d'execution transcendante, S139 (1851)

Boris Berezovsky pf

Apex (S) 2564 67716-5 (3/97 (R))

Technical challenges and stamina are raised by several degrees in this glorious collection demanding 'transcendental execution'. Though afar cry from the practice pieces of 30 years earlier, their origin lies in 12 studies Liszt wrote in 1826 modelled on those of his mentor Czerny. Here vised these in 1837-38 and, for this final edition of 1852, Liszt added titles: 'Feux follets', 'Wilde Jagd' and 'Harmonies du soir' are among the best known.

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(7) Lyapunov: 12 Etudes d'execution transcendante, Opii (l897-1905)

Louis Kentner pf

APR mono (M) APR5620 (3/02)

Lyapunov's (1859-1924) intention was to complete the tonalities of Liszt's Transcendental Etudes (which are all written in flat keys) by writing all 12 of his studies in sharp keys. …

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