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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Complete Piano Music, Volume 18:

Piano Transcriptions of Beethoven Symphonies:
Symphony No. 1 in C major
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major 'Eroica'
Konstantin Scherbakov (piano)
Rec 19-20 September 2000, St Martin's Church, East Woodhay, Berkshire
NAXOS 8.555354 [78.51]


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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. 1.

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 work.

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.

Terry Barfoot

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 manís genius.

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."

Gary Higginson

 


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