South Korean pianist Yunchan Lim performs Transcendental Études (French: Études d’exécution transcendante), S.139, a set of twelve compositions for piano by Franz Liszt. Recorded on June 10, 2022, during the semi-final of the 2022 Cliburn Competition, where Yunchan Lim took the 1st prize just at the age of 18 for his performance in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3.

Yunchan Lim performs Transcendental Études (French: Études d’exécution transcendante), S.139, a set of twelve compositions for piano by Franz Liszt

Franz Lizst’s Transcendental Études

Franz Liszt’s Transcendental Études are a set of twelve piano pieces, known for their extraordinary difficulty and depth of expression. Originally composed in 1826, Liszt extensively revised them in 1837 and again in 1851, the latter version being the most commonly performed today. These études transcend mere technical challenges; they are richly imbued with romanticism and are a testament to Liszt’s revolutionary approach to piano composition and technique.

The études are characterized by their dramatic contrasts, encompassing thunderous passages that demand virtuosic dexterity, alongside moments of delicate lyricism. They are not just exercises in technique but are also profoundly musical and expressive works, each with its unique character and mood. Liszt, a master pianist himself, used these pieces to explore the full range of the piano’s capabilities, pushing the boundaries of the instrument and the performer.

In the context of piano literature, the Transcendental Études hold a special place. They are seen as a pinnacle of pianistic challenge, combining musicality with technical prowess. They have inspired generations of pianists and remain a benchmark for testing the limits of one’s technical abilities and expressive range on the piano. These études are not just showpieces; they are a deep exploration of the romantic spirit and the potential of the piano as an instrument.

Transcendental Étude No. 1: Preludio

The first étude of Franz Liszt’s Transcendental Études, titled “Preludio,” serves as an impactful introduction to the entire set. It’s relatively short compared to the other études, but it’s packed with intensity and virtuosic demands. The piece is marked “Presto” and is played at a brisk, almost relentless pace.

“Preludio” is characterized by its rapid, ascending, and descending scales and arpeggios, which traverse the entire range of the keyboard. These technical elements are not just for show; they create a sense of exhilarating momentum and brilliance. The piece demands a high level of dexterity and precision from the performer, as the notes must be executed cleanly and at a rapid tempo.

Despite its technical demands, the musicality of the piece is paramount. The étude opens with a bold, commanding motif, setting a tone of confidence and energy that pervades the entire work. This is followed by cascades of notes that require not only speed but also a smooth, even touch to ensure musicality is not lost amidst the technical fireworks.

“Preludio” is more than a mere display of pianistic skill; it sets the stage for the rest of the Transcendental Études, showcasing Liszt’s innovative approach to the piano. It encapsulates the essence of the Romantic era’s virtuosity and expressiveness, serving as a fitting overture to one of the most challenging and revered sets of études in the piano repertoire.

Transcendental Étude No. 2: Molto Vivace

The second étude of Franz Liszt’s Transcendental Études is titled “Molto vivace” and presents a stark contrast to the first. This piece is known for its lightness, agility, and capricious character. Unlike the grandeur and intensity of the “Preludio,” “Molto vivace” demands a different kind of technical prowess, emphasizing finesse and subtlety over sheer power.

This étude is characterized by its rapid, staccato notes, which create a playful and almost whimsical atmosphere. The piece features a lot of hand-crossing and requires the pianist to perform quick, delicate leaps across the keyboard. These leaps and the staccato touch need to be executed with precision and lightness, making the étude a test of the pianist’s control and agility.

The musical structure of “Molto vivace” is somewhat capricious, with sudden changes in dynamics and tempo. It demands a high level of musical sensitivity from the performer, who must navigate these changes seamlessly to maintain the piece’s overall character. Despite its brevity, the étude is complex in its demands, requiring a blend of technical skill and interpretative insight.

“Molto vivace” showcases Liszt’s ability to write music that is not only technically challenging but also rich in character and expression. It adds a playful, almost impish quality to the Transcendental Études, demonstrating the wide emotional and technical range that Liszt envisioned for this set of works.

Transcendental Étude No. 3: Paysage

The third étude of Franz Liszt’s Transcendental Études, titled “Paysage” (Landscape), marks a significant shift in mood and style from its predecessors. This piece stands out for its lyrical, pastoral qualities, offering a tranquil and introspective respite from the technical bravura of the earlier études.

“Paysage” is characterized by its flowing, melodic lines that evoke the serene beauty of a natural landscape. The tempo marking is “Poco adagio,” indicating a slower, more reflective pace. This étude is not about dazzling technical displays but rather about creating a mood and painting a musical picture.

The technical challenges in “Paysage” are more subtle compared to the first two études. The piece requires a well-controlled touch and a sensitive use of the pedal to create its smooth, legato lines and to sustain its gentle harmonies. The performer needs to maintain a sense of calm and poise, allowing the piece’s melodic beauty and peaceful atmosphere to emerge.

Musically, “Paysage” is rich in its harmonic language, with lush chords and a wandering tonality that adds to its dreamy, contemplative character. It’s a testament to Liszt’s skill as a composer that he could evoke such vivid imagery through his music, and “Paysage” stands as one of the more evocative and poetic pieces in the set.

Transcendental Étude No. 4: Mazeppa

The fourth étude in Franz Liszt’s Transcendental Études, titled “Mazeppa,” is a dramatic and intensely programmatic piece. It is based on the legend of Ivan Mazeppa, a Ukrainian nobleman who, as punishment for an illicit love affair, was bound naked to a wild horse that carried him across Eastern Europe.

This étude is marked by its vivid storytelling and dramatic intensity. It begins with a series of powerful chords that set a tone of foreboding and urgency. The main body of the piece is characterized by rapid, galloping rhythms that evoke the image of Mazeppa’s frenzied ride. These relentless, pounding rhythms require not only technical dexterity but also immense stamina from the pianist.

The music is rich in its use of thematic development and transformation, mirroring the narrative of Mazeppa’s ordeal. Liszt employs a wide range of pianistic techniques, including octaves, leaps, and rapid scales, to create a sense of drama and tumult. The piece reaches its climax with a series of thunderous chords, representing Mazeppa’s eventual fall from the horse.

“Mazeppa” is not just a technical showcase but also a work of deep emotional and narrative expression. The étude requires the pianist to convey the story’s drama and intensity, making it as much an exercise in musical interpretation as in technical skill.

This étude stands out for its programmatic nature and its portrayal of human endurance and passion. It’s a vivid example of Liszt’s innovative approach to piano writing, blending virtuosic technique with rich storytelling.

Transcendental Étude No. 5: Feux follets

The fifth étude in Franz Liszt’s Transcendental Études, titled “Feux Follets” (Will-o’-the-Wisps), is renowned for its delicate, fleeting quality and extraordinary technical challenges. This piece is a stark contrast to the thunderous drama of “Mazeppa,” focusing instead on lightness, speed, and precision.

“Feux Follets” is often considered one of the most difficult pieces in the piano repertoire, largely due to its demand for extremely fast, light, and even fingerwork. The étude is characterized by rapid, whisper-like passages that require the pianist to play at a brisk tempo while maintaining clarity and subtlety. These passages mimic the flickering, elusive nature of will-o’-the-wisps, the ghostly lights said to mislead travelers at night.

The technical demands include rapid jumps, intricate fingerings, and delicate articulation, all of which must be executed with a feather-light touch. The challenge lies not just in the speed, but in maintaining a sense of effortlessness and fluidity throughout the piece.

Musically, “Feux Follets” is distinguished by its intricate, weaving melodies and harmonies, which create a sense of etherealness and otherworldliness. The étude requires not only technical prowess but also a high degree of musical sensitivity, as the pianist must convey the capricious, airy character of the music.

In the broader context of the Transcendental Études, “Feux Follets” stands out for its combination of extreme technical difficulty and poetic subtlety. It exemplifies Liszt’s ability to push the boundaries of piano technique while creating music of great beauty and expressiveness.

Transcendental Étude No. 6: Vision

The sixth étude in Franz Liszt’s Transcendental Études, titled “Vision,” presents a dramatic and deeply expressive musical landscape. This piece contrasts with the playful lightness of “Feux Follets,” offering instead a narrative of grandeur and intensity.

“Vision” is characterized by its powerful and expansive musical gestures. The piece opens with a series of commanding chords that set a tone of solemnity and depth. This is followed by a melody that is both majestic and melancholic, weaving through a rich tapestry of harmonies. The étude explores a wide dynamic range, with moments of thunderous intensity giving way to passages of introspective quietude.

The technical challenges in “Vision” are diverse. It requires not only strength and endurance to handle the broad, demanding chords and octaves, but also a delicate touch for the more lyrical and tender sections. The pianist must navigate these contrasting elements seamlessly, maintaining a sense of overarching drama and cohesion throughout the piece.

“Vision” is notable for its emotional depth and narrative quality. The music seems to tell a story, though what that story is can be subject to the listener’s interpretation. The étude is a testament to Liszt’s ability to compose music that is not only technically challenging but also rich in emotional and expressive content.

Transcendental Étude No. 7: Eroica

The seventh étude in Franz Liszt’s Transcendental Études, titled “Eroica,” is a piece marked by its heroic and triumphant character. This étude presents a distinct shift from the introspective and narrative quality of “Vision,” embracing a more assertive and bold musical style.

“Eroica” is characterized by its grand and vigorous theme, which demands a robust and commanding approach from the pianist. The piece is structured around a series of strong, rhythmically pronounced chords and octaves, which create a sense of power and determination. This theme is interspersed with more lyrical and expressive passages, which add depth and contrast to the overall heroic atmosphere.

Technically, the étude is challenging due to its demands for strength, endurance, and precision. The pianist must deliver the forceful chords and octaves with accuracy and intensity, without sacrificing the musicality of the quieter, more expressive sections. The ability to balance these contrasting elements is crucial to effectively conveying the étude’s heroic spirit.

Musically, “Eroica” is reminiscent of the grandeur and optimism of the heroic style often associated with Beethoven. The piece showcases Liszt’s skill in creating music that is not only virtuosic but also rich in thematic development and emotional impact.

Transcendental Étude No. 8: Wilde Jagd

The eighth étude in Franz Liszt’s Transcendental Études, titled “Wilde Jagd” (Wild Hunt), is a piece of tumultuous energy and intense drama. This étude diverges from the heroic character of “Eroica,” plunging instead into a frenetic and somewhat menacing musical narrative.

“Wilde Jagd” is inspired by the mythological motif of the wild hunt, a spectral chase led by a supernatural figure. This inspiration is vividly reflected in the music, which is marked by rapid, relentless rhythms and a sense of unrestrained movement. The étude opens with a series of powerful, ascending scales that set a tone of urgency and excitement.

The technical demands of “Wilde Jagd” are significant. The piece requires rapid fingerwork, extreme agility, and considerable stamina. The pianist must execute the rapid passages with precision and clarity, despite their breakneck speed. The étude also features challenging jumps and octave passages, adding to its physical demands.

Musically, the piece is characterized by its dramatic contrasts. Alongside the rapid, stormy passages are moments of lyrical intensity, which provide a brief respite from the tumult. These contrasting elements demand not only technical skill but also a deep sense of musicality and interpretation from the performer.

“Wilde Jagd” stands out in the Transcendental Études for its portrayal of raw, unbridled energy and dramatic intensity. It showcases Liszt’s ability to translate vivid, mythological themes into music that is both technically challenging and emotionally gripping, further cementing the set’s place as a monumental work in the piano repertoire.

Transcendental Étude No. 9: Ricordanza

The ninth étude in Franz Liszt’s Transcendental Études, titled “Ricordanza,” shifts dramatically in mood and style from its predecessor, “Wilde Jagd.” This piece is often regarded as one of the most lyrical and introspective in the set, known for its nostalgic and tender character.

“Ricordanza” translates to “Remembrance,” and the music beautifully reflects this theme of memory and reflection. The étude is characterized by its delicate, flowing melodies that seem to evoke a sense of longing or reminiscence. Unlike the technical ferocity of some other études in the set, “Ricordanza” focuses more on emotional expression and poetic sensitivity.

Technically, while the piece is not as overtly virtuosic as others, it presents its own unique challenges. The main difficulty lies in conveying the étude’s emotional depth through a nuanced and expressive touch. The pianist must maintain a sense of fluidity and grace, bringing out the melodic lines amidst the ornate embellishments and arpeggios that characterize much of the piece.

The use of rubato, or expressive timing, is also crucial in “Ricordanza.” The pianist must skillfully manipulate the tempo to enhance the music’s expressive qualities without losing its overall coherence. This requires a deep understanding of the piece’s structure and emotional narrative.

Transcendental Étude No. 10: Allegro agitato molto

The tenth étude in Franz Liszt’s Transcendental Études, titled “Allegro agitato molto,” is a tour de force of technical skill and emotional intensity. This piece marks a return to the virtuosic and dynamic style characteristic of many of the earlier études in the set.

“Allegro agitato molto” is renowned for its relentless pace and demanding technical challenges. The piece is characterized by its rapid, turbulent passages that require extreme dexterity and stamina. These passages are not just a display of technical prowess; they also create a sense of urgency and emotional turmoil, aligning with the “agitato” (agitated) aspect of the title.

The étude features a wide array of demanding pianistic elements, including rapid scales, arpeggios, and octaves, which the pianist must execute with precision and control, despite the frenetic tempo. The difficulty lies not only in the physical execution of these elements but also in maintaining musicality and expression amidst the technical demands.

Musically, “Allegro agitato molto” is rich in its harmonic and thematic development, with the turbulent passages contrasted by moments of lyrical intensity. This contrast adds to the dramatic impact of the piece, demanding a high level of interpretative insight from the performer.

Transcendental Étude No. 11: Harmonies du soir

The eleventh étude in Franz Liszt’s Transcendental Études, titled “Harmonies du Soir” (Evening Harmonies), is a piece that stands out for its evocative and lyrical qualities. This étude offers a striking contrast to the tempestuous “Allegro agitato molto” of the tenth étude, presenting a more serene, reflective, and harmonically rich landscape.

“Harmonies du Soir” is often celebrated for its beautiful and expansive chord progressions that evoke the tranquility and colors of the evening. The piece opens with a series of gentle, resonant chords that set a mood of peaceful contemplation. As the étude progresses, these harmonies become more complex and layered, creating a rich tapestry of sound that captures the essence of a serene evening.

The technical demands of this étude, while different from the virtuosic fireworks of others in the set, are substantial. The pianist must have a deep understanding of voicing and pedal usage to bring out the intricate harmonies and ensure their smooth progression throughout the piece. The challenge lies in creating a sense of fluidity and continuity, allowing the harmonies to unfold naturally and expressively.

“Harmonies du Soir” also requires a sensitive touch and control of dynamics. The pianist needs to navigate the shifts in mood and intensity with finesse, ensuring that the piece’s reflective and atmospheric quality is maintained.

Transcendental Étude No. 12: Chasse-neige

The twelfth and final étude in Franz Liszt’s Transcendental Études, titled “Chasse-neige” (Snowstorm), serves as a dramatic and powerful conclusion to this formidable set of works. This étude is distinct in its evocative portrayal of a snowstorm, combining both technical virtuosity and atmospheric depth.

“Chasse-neige” is characterized by its swirling, tumultuous passages that mimic the blinding, chaotic movement of snow being driven by strong winds. These passages are built on tremolos and rapid scales that span the length of the keyboard, creating a sense of relentless motion and intensity. The music’s swirling texture and dynamic surges effectively convey the feeling of being engulfed in a fierce snowstorm.

The technical demands of “Chasse-neige” are significant. The pianist must maintain the unceasing, rapid tremolos and scales, which require not only dexterity and stamina but also precise control to ensure that the musicality is not lost in the technical execution. The piece’s continuous motion and dynamic fluctuations challenge the pianist to convey the power of the storm while maintaining clarity and direction in the music.

Musically, “Chasse-neige” is notable for its impressionistic qualities. Liszt, through innovative use of the piano’s sonorities and textures, creates a vivid sound picture that goes beyond mere virtuosic display. The étude’s atmospheric depth and ability to paint a clear and powerful picture of a natural phenomenon showcase Liszt’s genius as a composer.

In the context of the entire Transcendental Études, “Chasse-neige” serves as a fitting climax. It encapsulates the set’s overarching themes of technical challenge and expressive depth, leaving a lasting impression of Liszt’s visionary approach to piano composition. This étude, with its combination of technical prowess and evocative power, remains a staple in the repertoire of advanced pianists and a testament to the enduring legacy of Liszt’s piano music.

Yunchan Lim

Liszt: 12 Transcendental Études [Yunchan Lim]
Yunchan Lim performs Transcendental Études (French: Études d’exécution transcendante)

Yunchan Lim launched onto the international music stage when he was 14. He won second prize and the Chopin Special Award in his first-ever competition, the Cleveland International Piano Competition for Young Artists in 2018.

That same year, he stood out as the youngest participant in the Cooper International Competition, where he won the third prize and the audience prize, which provided the opportunity for him to perform with the Cleveland Orchestra. 2019 meant more accolades, when, at the age of 15, he was the youngest to win Korea’s IsangYun International Competition, where he also took home two special prizes.

Lim has performed across South Korea-including with the Korean Orchestra Festival, Korea Symphony, Suwon Philharmonic, and Busan Philharmonic Orchestras, among others – as well as in Madrid, at the invitation of the Korean Cultural Center in Spain. He also participated in the recording of “2020 Young Musicians of Korea,” organized by the Korean Broadcasting System and released that November.

Lim won the sixteenth Van Cliburn International piano competition in 2022.

A native of Siheung, Yunchan currently studies at the Korea National University of Arts under Minsoo Sohn. Coming to Fort Worth, he says he is “looking forward to playing in front of the warmest and most passionate audience in the world.”


M. Özgür Nevres

Published by M. Özgür Nevres

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