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Sheng Cai is a Canadian pianist with a growing international reputation. The playing on this disc is remarkable. In Franz Liszt’s 12 Transcendental Etudes (1852), what stand out are clear voicing, fine control of dynamics and a sense of expressive freedom. For example, in Paysage (No.3) pacing is flexible and there are several grades of softness. Ricordanza (No.9) opens with comparable expressiveness in movement and dynamics but on an expanding scale, meeting this longer work’s more dramatic and extreme demands. In other words, Cai is fully up to the Etudes’ diverse challenges! We haven’t yet considered that he successfully matches such technical demands as the fearsome leaps in Mazeppa (No.4), the colouristic intricacies of Feux follets (No.5), or the tremendous approaching storm tremolos in Chasse-neige (No.12). Throughout the disc, effective groupings of pedalled notes and precise phrase cut-offs are among the ways this pianist has avoided the banging and noisiness I have heard in some well-known artists’ Liszt renderings.
Through the artist we meet the composer, and I have enjoyed Liszt’s humour in the characterization of the Eroica (No. 7) and the composer’s artistry with what seem like painters’ brush strokes in Waldesrauschen (Forest Murmurs), one of the Two Concert Etudes (1862-63) also included on this recording. Do not fear for lack of variety among all of these etudes, no two are alike and Cai makes the listening experience a distinct pleasure.