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Back then, when the Liszt Etudes were really difficult

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
11/07/2019 -  
Nikolai Kapustin: 8 Concert Etudes, Op. 40: 3. “Toccatina”
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109
Alexander Scriabin: 24 Preludes, Op. 11: No. 11 in B Major – 12 Etudes, Op. 8: No. 12 in D-sharp Minor
Franz Liszt: Twelve Transcendental Etudes, S. 139

Maxim Lando (pianist)

M. Lando (© YCA Archives)

I remember, not all that long ago, that anyone who attempted to perform in concert the whole set of Transcendental Etudes by Liszt had to belong to the upper echelon of piano virtuosi. Names like Jorge Bolet , George Cziffra or perhaps the foremost of them, Lazar Berman, come to mind. Back then, New York stages did not display many pianists brave enough to sit down and conquer this set save for the aforementioned. They are, after all, a pinnacle of technical achievement and pose for the pianist a most difficult test of skill and endurance.

In October alone, in addition to a try-out recital of Mr. Lando, I heard another complete set of the Etudes, played this time by a youngster barely 14 years old. Granted, I only saw a video of the event, which took place across the continent in Western Canada, but I am mentioning it only to observe that what yesterday used to be well nigh unattainable today becomes repertory successfully tackled by children. For the record, Maxim Lando turned only 17 just weeks before his recital at Zankel Hall.

He was a winner of the 2018 Young Concert Artist (YCA) award, an organization responsible for discovering and nurturing talents and careers of two generations of some of the finest musicians now before the public. For close to six decades, YCA was lead by the indefatigable Susan Wadsworth, who only recently handed over the reins of this organization to Mr. Daniel Kellogg. It was a noble act to bring her onstage so once again she could receive a round of applause and show of love so richly deserved for all the good done to classical music under her reign. During their annual competitions, YCA goes through dozens of young, superbly gifted performers and most of the time its judges – the finest musicians from all walks of life – have displayed an uncanny ability to focus on the ones that are even more extraordinary than their supremely gifted colleagues.

My ears first registered the presence of a still very young Maxim Lando at concerts of the Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players. His father is their regular clarinet player, and what a player he is! The young Maxim would play sometimes some very demanding pieces of chamber music and showed not only his piano mastery but also a deep understanding of these difficult scores. Still I was not prepared to hear at his debut program a work as daunting as the 12 Transcendental Etudes of Liszt.

The program was unevenly distributed, with a much shorter first half sandwiching a late Beethoven sonata between two effective etudes by Kapustin and Scriabin, and the second part an almost 70 minute either test of endurance or, if you will, pianistic punishment, which the young master delivered without much sweat.

After the first work, Kapustin’s Toccatina, our young artist walked back on stage, greeted us warmly and announced that is was his life-dream to perform the Liszt set at a place like Carnegie Hall. Well, I guess that would be a dream of any pianist, regardless of age: it just happens that this 17 year old is able to play it and was able to do so in Zankel Hall. Young musicians frequently try to impress their audiences with brilliance and technical feats, offering very little in sense of conveying the music worth, deeper sense, emotional aspect. It is to be expected that as we mature, so will our interpretations. Thus, it is barely worth mentioning that the Beethoven Sonata in E Major in the hands of the 17 year old Lando will sound more mature when he is 30, and, if everything progresses as it should, still more deeply and affectingly felt when he is 60, even if now he has faster fingers than he will have four decades hence.

Regarding the Liszt Etudes, it has forever been my argument that the reason it is so enormously difficult to find the so called “ideal performance” is because of the issue of finding a proper balance between technical prowess and maturity. Too often, when that long awaited “maturity” finally appears – as was in case of such giants as Claudio Arrau or Jorge Bolet – the fingers are not always able to conquer the brutal difficulties of the score. In the case of Master Lando, we were all astonished to see and hear how closely he approached that Olympian goal, even if there were tons of interpretive decisions that engendered a careful and knowledgeable listener to scratch his head and ask “from where did he get these ideas?”. One could also admit that this young pianist dares to do things not considered by others.

Lando has at his disposal a very powerful weapon to conquer the hurdles and non-stop difficulties of the “12”, which as a work of piano literature redefined it. His hands can stretch well enough to play the chords and extended intervals without breaking them; his ability to articulate even the fastest notes is exemplary, his accuracy of jumps and handling of the prolonged, hand-numbing octave passages and general stamina are worthy of the highest reverence. There were too numerous instances to mention in one review where his mastery of handling those thorny passages showed not only control of touch and speed, but also an individual approach. Like it or not, individual it was.

Throughout both the Beethoven sonata and Liszt etudes, there was also an abundance of an almost frivolous approach to the matter of timing, shaping of phrases and disregard for the composer’s markings. It is one thing to be flexible in matter of tempo and timing; quite another when such a free approach becomes disturbing or worse yet unconvincing. That ever-present tendency was a bit annoying and in places spoiled the generally positive effect.

It is perhaps not a role of a critic to instruct an artist how to play, though I suppose we-the-critics often do it. If there is but one piece of advice that I would offer to Mr. Lando, it is a very simple one: try to sing any phrase of music you play (only those that can be sung!) and see if there’s much discrepancy between what you sing and what you play. If you are satisfied, keep it; if the discrepancy is jarring, then you’ve got a problem. Singing is one of nature’s gifts to humanity that will never fail you, even if you sing wrong pitches: the shape of the phrase will always remain more perfect than what anyone can do on a keyboard, and emulating a vocal phrase was always a feature of great piano masters.

As I see it at this point of a career which is only starting to build, young Master Lando and his art can be compared to a beautiful house, very well built and situated on a beautiful piece of land. The only thing we may not like is the art-work on the walls. Whereas one can always change/replace the artwork and redecorate the whole place, it would be much more difficult to do structural changes to the construction. Or to a raw-cut diamond that needs some polishing work. Whoever will be working with him (he is still in the Juilliard Prep!) will work with something as prized and as indestructible as a diamond. In respect to piano playing per se, he is already immensely accomplished, and even if he takes some interpretive steps which may raise one’s eyebrows, at least he takes them, and he is neither bland nor boring.

I did not devote much attention to the first, much shorter half of the program which musically displayed the same strengths and weaknesses. The etudes that book-ended from the outset demonstrate that we deal with a first-rate virtuoso and it is always a delight to hear the inventiveness of Nikolai Kapustin’s piano works, that masterfully intertwine jazz-derived elements with classical forms as was demonstrated in his Concert Etude “Toccatina”, an excellent opening number. The concluding Scriabin Etude in D-sharp Minor showed the strong influence of one Russian master; an influence that seems to be emulated by all of the young and older pianists who try to out-Horowitz him. Two more details: for each half of the program Mr. Lando donned a different open-collar shirt (the name of designer not disclosed) and there was only one encore, pianist’s own arrangement of Led Zeppelin Stairway to Heaven.

So let’s keep that name in memory: it was an exceptional debut, one that will be remembered and I suppose Maxim Lando is already on the path to become a leading American pianist, just as many of his famous colleagues who also started as YCA winners became.

Roman Markowicz



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