Franz Liszt was the most central figure in 19th century
music. No-one travelled more widely, no one met and knew more of his
fellow musicians, no one had a keener grasp of the repertoire, no one
explored the possibilities of a new musical aesthetic and language more
readily, and no one composed more prolifically.
The ambitious Naxos project to record all Liszt's solo
piano music has now reached Volume 18, and this new volume is an undoubted
success. Liszt was, among other things, a great virtuoso of the keyboard,
of course, whose transcriptions are always among his most challenging
works. The idea of bringing Beethoven's symphonies before a wider public
was laudable and was uppermost in his mind in making these versions
of the originals. However, the virtuoso challenge in their performance
should not be underestimated; they are not intended for domestic music-making.
Nowhere is the challenge to the pianist more readily
appreciated than in the great Eroica Symphony, a work whose lengthy
proportions and powerful intensity require a strong structural grasp,
a clear intellectual vision, and sheer concentration, not to mention
a prodigious piano technique. Konstantin Scherbakov scores on all these
counts, and the Naxos recording creates an excellent piano sound in
an atmospheric acoustic. Liszt - and Beethoven - are well served.
However, Liszt would have been the first to admit that
although his transcriptions did to some extent achieve the laudable
merit of bringing Beethoven's music to a wider public at a time when
there were few orchestral concerts, they are still no substitute for
the real thing. This is of course more noticeable with an epic score
like the Eroica, than in the smaller and less challenging Symphony No.
It is inevitably in the slow movements that the issue
is at its most problematic, since in slow-moving music the quality of
the sound itself is under the closest scrutiny. It is difficult for
Scherbakov to maintain the requisite tension in the musical line of
the great funeral march of the Eroica, nor is the Andante cantabile
of the Symphony No. 1 as pleasing as the other movements.
In many other respects one can only wonder at Liszt's
ability to capture the essentials of Beethoven's symphonic vision on
a single instrument. The textures teem with activity in a balance which
so intelligently delivers the various ideas presented by Beethoven's
orchestra. The faster movements come over particularly well, even though
the lack of orchestral variety and weight denies the Eroica its natural
identity in a way which is not so much of a problem with the earlier
Therefore this is an experience which will bring the
listener many rewards. To the lover of piano music, there are performances
of skill, consummate technique and structural control from an artist
of high calibre, and to those who like to explore the repertoire whenever
the opportunity arises, Liszt's understanding of his great predecessor
is second to none.
Gary Higginson has also listened to this release
Now having reached Volume 18 of the complete Liszt
on Naxos the irrepressible Konstantin Scherbakov turns to the Symphony
Transcriptions, so that this is a series to rival that of Leslie Howard
on Hyperion. How marvellous to be able to have the complete works of
Liszt by two great pianists. Itís worth remembering that in all the
doom and gloom surrounding the industry, never have we been so fortunate.
I played this recording of the slow movement of the
1st Symphony to an amateur pianist friend who does not know
the Beethoven Symphonies too well, but who has had tackled a few sonatas.
Having heard it she said "just another Beethoven Sonata".
When I explained further what it was, she remarked "so that makes
thirty-three now". [!]
Yet I have to disagree. The only thing one can say
is that this music is not pianistic in a sense that a sonata would be,
but is full of more contrast both in texture and dynamic. The material
likewise is treated differently with an aim at antiphony between orchestral
families, which can only be achieved on the piano by the use of differing
octaves. Yet I could understand where my friend was coming from, with
the more classical layout of the 1st symphony. But with the
ĎEroicaí it is clear that this is orchestral music par excellence.
I suppose that if Beethoven played the work to friends
when newly composed then this is almost how they might have heard it
(with a few snapping strings along the way). Liszt, of course, had the
ability to play an orchestral score straight onto the piano without
making a transcription. There is a story about a visit made to him by
the young Edvard Greig, who posted his Piano Concerto through the great
manís letterbox. When summoned the next day. Liszt sight-read the entire
score (piano and orchestral parts together) exclaiming at the younger
So, why did Liszt go to the very considerable trouble
of doing so thorough a transcription? Well, he gave several recitals
a month, and contrary to popular opinion he did not only play his own
music. His recitals could be very long by modern standards, so a symphony
or two per concert was not unusual. Now while it was impossible, even
for the great Liszt to play every single note that Beethoven wrote,
he obviously knew the symphonies very well because he knew exactly what
to leave out, and still make the work totally convincing. True,
there are several passages of tremolando left-hand under the building
tune above, or a crescendo, which can only be effective if played tremolando
hands together. Yet these transcriptions are extraordinarily clever
and brilliant. They make the works appear to be natural to the piano
and totally convincing.
Scherbakov makes it all seem so effortless and, although
I have not heard these transcriptions before, I cannot fault his work.
Iím less keen on the piano sound, and I wonder if St. Martinís Church
which is so effective in renaissance music is really quite the venue
for a piano recital such as this. There is nothing intimate in this
music, all is public and vast and magnificent, and I feel that the acoustic
should give back a little to the player.
Perhaps I should end by quoting the amazingly prolific
Keith Anderson, regular writer of Naxosís liner notes: "Fifty years
after his meeting with Beethoven in Vienna, Liszt still held Beethoven
in the greatest respect, a reverence reflected in his activities in
the cause of the Beethoven monuments in Bonn and Vienna and festivals
of Beethovenís music throughout Europe. Amongst Lisztís treasured possessions
were the death mask of Beethoven and his Broadwood piano."