The Transcendental Etudes contain extreme technical difficulties, such as the right hand configuration and left hand leaps in the Transcendental Etude No. 5.
The Transcendental Etudes (French: Études d'exécution transcendante), S.139, are a series of twelve compositions written for solo piano by Franz Liszt in 1852. The 1852 version is the revision of an even more technically difficult 1837 version, which in turn was the elaboration of a set of studies written in 1826.
The Transcendental Etudes S. 139 began in 1826, as a set of youthful and far less technically demanding exercises called the Étude en douze exercices (Study in twelve exercises) S. 136. Liszt then elaborated on these pieces considerably, and the far more technically difficult exercises called the Douze Grandes Études (Twelve Great Studies) S. 137 were then published in 1837.
The Transcendental Etudes S. 139 are revisions of his Douze Grandes Etudes. As the third and final version, this set was published in 1852 and dedicated to Carl Czerny, Liszt’s piano teacher, and himself a prolific composer of etudes. The set included simplifications, for the most part; in addition to many other reductions, Liszt removed all stretches of greater than a tenth, making the piece more suitable for pianists with smaller hands and less technical skill. However, the fourth etude of the final set, Mazeppa, is actually more demanding than its 1837 version, since it very frequently alters and crosses the hand to create a “galloping” effect.
When revising the 1837 set of etudes, Liszt added programmatic titles to all but the Etudes Nos. 2 and 10. These titles are in French and German. Later, one of Liszt’s editors Ferruccio Busoni gave the name Fusées (“Rockets”) to the Etude No. 2, and the name Appassionata to the Etude No. 10; however, Busoni’s titles are not commonly used or well known.
Owing to their technical difficulty, there have been very few recordings made of the Transcendental Etudes in any of their revisions. Exceedingly few known recordings of the original etudes written in 1826 exist. The 1837 version has only been commercially recorded three times: by Janice Weber, Leslie Howard, and Massimo Gon. The only recording to remain available is that by Leslie Howard, as part of his series of the complete recordings of the piano music of Franz Liszt for Hyperion Records. This recording is held by many music professionals to be the one which does best justice to the technical and musical demands; of particular note, Gramophone magazine declared: “Howard brings his customary technical wizardry to bear on this outrageously difficult music in an arresting virtuoso display.”
The simplified Transcendental Etudes S. 139 have been recorded more often. Of particular note is a recording originally made in 1974 by the Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau and remastered and released in 2008 by Pentatone. Live recording of the complete set of these Etudes was made in 2002 at La Roque-d'Anthéron by Russian pianist Boris Berezovsky. Georges Cziffra, a renowned Liszt specialist, also made recordings of these Etudes. Lazar Berman recorded it twice in studio and there are his live recording. In 2008, it was recorded by Alice Sara Ott, who, regarding the revisions, said, "the last is the best for both pianist and listener. Here, unlike the awkward and ungrateful 1838 version, you are made aware that the Etudes are never merely technical, but a cycle of unlimited range in sound and colour. They mirror every possible aspect of Liszt’s multi-faceted personality".