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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1826)
Symphonies 1-9: S.464 arr. 1837-1865 by Franz Liszt (1811 - 1886)
Cyprien Katsaris, piano
Recorded 1985-1989, location not given.
Notes in English, Français, Deutsch
TELDEC CLASSICS 2564 60865-2 [6CDs: 61.15+53.48+71.23+44.06+66.41+65.36]

Comparison recordings of Liszt arrangements of Beethoven Symphonies:

#5 (compl.) and #6 (1st. mvt. only), Glen Gould, piano [ADD] Sony SMK 52636
#4 and #6, Konstantin Scherbakov, piano Naxos 8.557170

If anybody reads my reviews regularly (Mother? Are we the only ones?) he or she knows that I swear I will never listen to another Beethoven symphony as long as I live, and also that I swear that the Liszt arrangements are better than the originals. So here I am confronted with my own words: Yes, here is a set of Beethoven symphonies and I listened to all of them all the way through and enjoyed myself thoroughly.

How can I possibly say that a piano reduction of an orchestral work is better than the original when demonstrably many notes have been left out and the variety in the tone colours has been all but eliminated? And do I really mean to say that Liszt is a greater composer than Beethoven and that Beethoven needed Liszt to repair his defective music? Well, first, what’s wrong with the Beethoven Symphonies is that they’re self consciously "great;" they need a little deflation. Of course many (but by no means all) recent conductors have accomplished this with the orchestral versions over the decades. And, Beethoven for all his repeatedly praised virtues as a composer and innovator had a terrible sense of rhythm. If you try to dance to Beethoven, you’ll probably trip yourself and twist an ankle or two. Beethoven’s music sits foursquare on the floor and defies anybody to make it move. It must be conceded that some of his early chamber music written under the direct influence of Mozart and Haydn comes pretty close to being an exception to this comment. But even the first symphony has its foundation poured in concrete against undisturbed earth and is monumental before it is anything else.

Liszt, acknowledged even by his bitterest detractors to be the greatest pianist who had ever lived, was also a great conductor and in many ways created the modern cult of the conductor. (Am I the only one who has noticed how Leopold Stokowski modelled his career and public persona directly after Liszt? My God, even the haircut is the same!) Lisat was in great demand throughout his life for his performances of the Beethoven Symphonies. Unfortunately for us, Wagner was also in demand as a conductor of Beethoven, and in the race for Twentieth Century musical style, Wagner won. That’s why for 100 years typical performances of most Beethoven Symphonies have sounded too much like Parsifal and not enough like Haydn or Mozart.

In the First Symphony the quotations from Mozart’s Magic Flute are played with all the humour and lightness worthy of the original. I have never enjoyed the first movement allegro from the Second Symphony as much as in this recording; it’s an absolute romp, just like hearing it for the first time. You might be able to convince me that the last three movements of the Second Symphony actually do sound better weighted down with orchestral sound. The incredible complexity of the first two movements of the Eroica Symphony call from Liszt astonishing feats of ingenuity to fit this music so perfectly into the span of just ten fingers. These movements become an incomparable experience, unlike any other work for piano. Astonishment is a valid part of the experience of ultimate virtuosic skill both in conception and execution, even though astonishment is hardly the point of these movements which dredge the depths of the farthest extremes of emotions. The last two transcribed Eroica movements conjure visions of imaginary Beethoven works transitional between the middle and late piano sonatas.

With the Fourth Symphony we can make a direct comparison between Katsaris and Scherbakov, and both are excellent. Katsaris has a slightly crisper rhythmic sense and dynamic control and a tiny bit more stamina. Scherbakov relies on the pedal more to establish textures. In this symphony only, I think Sherbakov’s piano is just a tiny bit better regulated. On both recordings the first movement from the Fourth Symphony, as with the Second Symphony, is a much richer musical experience than any orchestral recording I’ve heard. The second movement is from another of those imaginary "transition-to-late" piano sonatas. Katsaris especially brings out the strange spoofiness in the third movement; was it intended as a satire on E. T. A. Hoffmann? Then it’s off to the races with the last movement which, again, sounds more interesting on the piano than any orchestral version I’ve heard.

The Glen Gould recording of the Fifth Symphony is one of his finest recordings. In his hands the slow movement becomes the greatest piano sonata movement Beethoven ever wrote. Compared to Katsaris, Gould’s piano sounds smaller with less interesting, less flexible sound in the bass strings. Katsaris keeps more rhythmic integrity of all the movements, and his ingenuity in making the piano actually sound like strings, flutes, and drums is probably more equal to Liszt’s. Gould uses his special Bachian magic on the fugue in the third movement but Katsaris certainly plays it beautifully, and frankly does better with the large sound of the first and last movements.

In the Pastoral Symphony Katsaris apparently found he had a finger or two underutilised, so he added notes from the score that Liszt had left out. If you’ve read my arguments in some other reviews you know that I consider this leaving-out to be a virtue, not a shortcoming. At any rate, the changes are minor. In the first movement exposition, everybody plays the flute figure at bar 42 and the first one in bar 46. Katsaris ads the second one in bar 46, and the ones in the next couple of bars, but he doesn’t actually have enough resources to actually play them, so they’re just slapped at. They actually come off much better in the equivalent bars in the recapitulation, but Liszt was probably right to leave them out of the published version even though he himself might have added them in his own performances. Overall, Katsaris’ version is the most dramatic and effective, while Gould’s first movement is the most affecting, if a little smaller in tone. Here Scherbakov comes in third.

The Pastoral Symphony is the most remarkable piece Beethoven ever wrote; he was obviously reaching for an opera, but sometimes operas are better off not finished, e.g., Berlioz’ Romeo & Juliet and Tchaikovsky’s Undine which became Swan Lake. Katsaris’ Pastorale is to my mind the finest performance the work has ever received on any instrument. In the storm movement he builds the drum parts to earthquake intensity, and you will swear that those are real horns and trombones. Scherbakov’s light is blown away by Katsaris’ storm.

As the jivey and sentimental Leonard Bernstein could in old age become the greatest interpreter of Haydn, the operatic Stokowski only became a Beethoven conductor of stature in his oldest age; in his wild youth, the Pastorale was obviously his favourite and he lavished his attention on it, most significantly in Disney’s Fantasia. No surprise it took him 40 years to really discover the rest of the symphonies, the very different ones.

The Seventh Symphony is to my mind the most successful, being the best blend of craftsmanship, drama, poetry and heart. Liszt and Katsaris add the one thing it lacks—grace. Liszt also adds marching soldiers in the allegretto, not so strange since the first performance of the work was a benefit for war wounded. But, perhaps surprisingly, here is where I miss the colour of the orchestra the most.

The Eighth Symphony has always been my least favourite of the set, and the transcription does not help this. I guess I would say that, as with at least parts of the First, Second, and Fourth and Sixth Symphonies, I enjoy the transcription more than an orchestral performance, but I could easily do without either.

The suggestion of playing the whole Ninth Symphony, including the chorale finale, on a single piano is likely to generate incredulous laughter. Liszt himself realised the problem and made a two piano version of this symphony which many feel is superior to this solo piano version, which took Liszt longer to write than any of the others. From the very first the Ninth has been considered a failed attempt, a reputation it still had when I bought my first recording of it. The work has inspired an enormous literature describing its alleged shortcomings, and many composers—including Mendelssohn and Mahler—have written imitations attempting to effect the necessary repairs. The current idea that the work is a supreme and perfect masterpiece has only occurred during the last 40 years or so. I still know people who scornfully laugh out loud at several points in the work, such as bar 124 in the adagio. It was the Decca 1967 Stokowski recording that finally resolved my doubts and convinced me of the unified validity of the entire work, although I have to say the 1958 Fricsay recording on DGG in spite of dated sound contains particular virtues which have still not been equalled and probably can never be surpassed.

But we were talking about the transcription at hand. Most people would probably guess offhand that the first movement of the Ninth Symphony is the longest movement written by Beethoven, but they’d be wrong by quite a ways; it’s actually the fourth longest coming in behind the first movements of both the Third and Seventh Symphonies. But the first movement of the Ninth is the "most monumental" movement Beethoven ever wrote, and that makes it seem larger. Liszt and Katsaris thin it out greatly with considerable success. At first the scherzo wants to run on like a polka, an image that can’t stick to the orchestral version. Liszt interpolates some successful melodic transition passages and gradually builds drama which help to get around this. The adagio follows and after the anguish of the first movement and violence of the second, we spend some quiet moments down by the brook, nearly the same one that appears in the Sixth Symphony. The overall strategy becomes apparent by the time we enter the finale—here the pianist is starting to run out fingers right and left. But by drastically reducing the textural weight of the early movements the finale takes on an authentic hugeness by comparison. Nevertheless, Liszt is forced to engage in more recomposition here than in any of the earlier transcriptions since the task of mapping all the notes on ten fingers is, of course, an impossible one.

If you fast for two days and purify yourself with scourging for an hour before lighting candles and settling down to listen to Beethoven, these recordings will outrage you. This is Beethoven with the delight, the grace, the pulse, the fun put back in, Beethoven for Saturday night listening, moving around the room listening, earphone listening while jogging, poolside listening!

Beethoven and Liszt were both alive at the same time, and both were child prodigy pianists. Liszt understood things about Beethoven and his music that nobody else ever would, and became one of the greatest Beethoven interpreters of all time. It was these transcriptions that created public demand to hear the orchestral versions, and any Beethoven lover no matter how familiar with the orchestral versions, will learn volumes from hearing these transcriptions. By a thin margin the Katsaris set is the best available but if you’ve already bought the Scherbakov set, you may be content with it knowing that only a fanatic like me would really have to have both sets.

Paul Shoemaker


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