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Music Review: Franz Liszt and the Beethoven Symphonies

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Franz Liszt was a showoff. The Hungarian pianist and composer was an aristocrat, had movie star looks, and talent to burn. Liszt (1811-1886) did for the piano what Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840) had done previously for the violin, which was to turn the instrument into a vehicle of virtuosity. Where previously composers and performers were subservient to the art of music, Liszt and Paganini promoted the idea of "Artist as Hero," with Liszt pioneering the concept of the piano recital. Both men shamelessly promoted themselves with concerts filled with melodrama and carnival stunts. Both were charlatans; both were visionaries. They were the first Rock Stars.

Liszt's piano pieces were composed for his performance pleasure. They were technically challenging, conceived by Liszt to show off his talent on the concert stage. Piano transcriptions of popular orchestral and operatic pieces of the mid-nineteenth century became a chosen interpretive mode for the pianist. Most popular among Liszt's transcriptions of other composers' work are his preparations of Beethoven's Nine Symphonies.

Liszt began his symphonic transcriptions 1838, completing Symphonies Nos. 5, 6 and 7 the former two being published by Breitkopf & Härtel and the latter by Tobias Haslinger. Five years later, in 1843, Liszt arranged a transcription the Eroica Symphony's Scherzo: Allegro vivace which he had published by Pietro Mechetti in 1850. In 1840, Liszt added these transcriptions to his concert lists, giving them ample exposure for the sale of sheet music.

It would not be until 1863 that Liszt would complete his set at the behest of Breitkopf & Härtel. Liszt reworked the original three transcriptions and sped his way through the remaining Symphonies without losing too much of "the Beethoven" in them. However, the pianist was brought up short on the choral finale of the famous Ninth Symphony. In a fit of frustration, Liszt observed that he may have to accept, "…the impossibility of making any pianoforte arrangement of the 4th movement…that could in any way be…satisfactory."

Regardless, Liszt labored on to adapt the 4th movement for single piano, completing it in 1865. Liszt had previously addressed his fourth movement problems in his transcription for two pianos in 1850. But the pianists persistence paid off in his single piano efforts and the full cycle of transcriptions was published in 1865 and dedicated to Liszt's then son-in-law Hans von Bülow. Liszt's Beethoven Symphony transcriptions remain a mountain in the piano repertoire.

Available recordings of the Liszt-Beethoven transcriptions are sparse whether recorded separately or as a cycle. Glenn Gould recorded scintillating 5th and 6th Symphony performances in the late 1960s. It is a pity he did not commit a full set to tape. Of the complete cycles, there are only three. The first was recorded by French pianist Cyprian Katsaris for Teldec in the 1980s and later re-released by Warner Group in 2006.

Contemporaneously, Harmonia Mundi released a cycle in the late 1980s-early 1990s performed by Jean-Louis Haguenauer, Georges Pludermacher, Alain Planes, Michel Dalberto, and Jean-Claude Pennetier (the Nineth Symphony transcription being for two pianos). These performances were assembled into a box released in 1995. During the same period, English pianist Leslie Howard recorded all of Liszt's piano music for Hyperion. The Beethoven transcriptions made a tidy subset to this mammoth undertaking, being boxed separately and released in 1995.

Shortly before Howard completed his Liszt survey, Naxos began its own program for recording all of Liszt's piano music; using different pianists for each release (the label is currently doing the same for the complete sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti). Wisely, Naxos chose a single, singular pianist in Konstantin Scherbakov to perform the Liszt-Beethoven Cycle. Scherbakov completed his cycle in 2006 at which time it was boxed.

The Naxos Liszt-Beethoven Symphony set is completed with Liszt: Beethoven – Symphony No. 9 (arranged for 2 pianos) (Liszt Complete Piano Music, Vol. 28) with pianists Leon McCawley and Ashley Wass. The two releases make for a most complete survey of Liszt's Beethoven Orchestral transcriptions.

Ludwig van Beethoven / Franz Liszt
Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 1-9 Transcribed by Liszt
Konstantin Scherbakov
Naxos
2006

Konstantin Scherbakov was born in Barnaul, Siberia in 1963. He has previously recorded the standard Russian repertoire for Naxos including Godowsky, Medtner, Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Shostakovich, and Tchaikovsky. Scherbakov possesses a muscular, aggressive piano style that recalls the great Ukrainian pianist Sviatoslav Richter.

Scherbakov's performance style is well suited for the Liszt transcriptions, giving them a virile life of their own. Scherbakov's set of Liszt transcribed Beethoven Symphonies was originally released as separate discs comprising five volumes of Naxos' Liszt Complete Piano Music. The cycle was released in the following order:

Volume 15, LISZT: Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 2 and 5 (1999)
Volume 18, LISZT: Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3 (2001)
Volume 19, LISZT: Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 4 and 6 (2003)
Volume 21, LISZT: Beethoven Symphonies No. 9 (2004)
Volume 23, LISZT: Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8 (2006)
Box Set: LISZT: Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 1-9 (2006)

These separate volumes were assembled into the complete box with no additional documentation other than each volume's insert. This is a trend in the repackaging of Naxos discs as themed releases also seen in releases Of Beauty and Light: The Music of Philip Glass and The Silence of Being: The Music of Arvo Part.

Scherbakov dispatches the Beethoven "Big Three" (the Third, Fifth, and Ninth Symphonies) with certain grace and confidence. His pianistic approach is measured in an almost militant, marching way. This can readily be heard in the pianist's performance of the Fist and Second Symphonies, as well as the first movement of the Ninth Symphony. Scherbakov boasts Horowitzian overtones in these performances.

Scherbakov's Sixth Symphony is sunny and bright in the pastoral first three movements and suitably dark and menacing in the thunderstorm before resolving in a reverent fifth movement. Scherbakov's Ninth is scintillating. Liszt wrung his hands over his transcription of the Ninth Symphony for good reason: the fourth movement with its choral sections presents a huge challenge to any transcriber. Scherbakov allows the movement to flow liquid from his fingers, giving the difficult piece a fluid continuity and integration. Scherbakov's Liszt/Beethoven is the set to beat both in price and talent.

Ludwig van Beethoven / Franz Liszt
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (Transcribed for Two Pianos by Liszt)
Leon McCawley, Ashley Wass
Naxos
2008

McCawley and Wass' two-piano performance of the Ninth Symphony offers an intriguing comparison to Scherbakov's single piano version. Together they highlight Liszt's genius, both musically and in the arena of public relations. Two pianos not only solve Liszt's problem with the choral fourth movement but also augment the more difficult portions of the first and second movements.

It was obvious that Liszt fretted about this symphony as this two piano version predates the single instrument one by 15 years. This two piano performance is full and satisfying. The listener can readily hear the ideas the composer would incorporate in his final interpretation of the Ninth.

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About C. Michael Bailey

I am sanctified and Southern fried, My mama tried and daddy cried; I tell the truth 'cept when I've lied And I like my huevos on the side...