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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Complete Piano Music - Volume 28

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN

Symphony No.9 in D minor, Choral, op.125 (1824) (transc. two pianos, Franz Liszt) [61:04]
Leon McCawley and Ashley Wass (two pianos)
rec. 19–21 January 2007, Potton Hall, Suffolk. DDD
NAXOS 8.570466 [61:04]
Experience Classicsonline

The Liszt arrangements of the Beethoven Symphonies are quite something – and something else if you’re a pianist!
The Ninth is a bigger work than the previous eight and Liszt uses two pianos instead of the single keyboard on which he managed to accommodate the others! These arrangements are not for home consumption – they are fiendishly difficult – but they exist to help our understanding of the amazing works Beethoven created in the symphonic form. They also exist, these days, for virtuoso pianists to interpret the Beethoven Symphonies – a privilege denied to them under normal circumstances – and how they play them! I have a recording, in my collection, of the great Earl Wild, from the 1986 City of London Festival, playing the First Symphony like it’s never been played before! It’s an amazing feat! And so it should be! When we listen to the Beethoven Symphonies we are party to something exceptional in our world of music. These arrangements are the music pared down to essentials. Liszt allows us not only to hear how these works are constructed – to hear them without orchestral garb is very illuminating, permitting us to focus on the ebb and flow of the music, how it all fits together – but to appreciate them as towering edifices in the world of music, and further to understand how they fit into the grand scheme of musical things.
I have heard only one of the Naxos recordings of Beethoven/Liszt and was impressed so I looked forward to this disk with some excitement. I was not disappointed.
The Ninth is an epic work – built like Schubert’s final Symphony, which we now know was written at about the same time – on a very large scale with big ideas and a generous amount of working out of the material. McCawley and Wass begin with a real Allegro. Too often this first movement is played too slowly. As we now know Bruckner’s music and his last three great Symphonies, which all begin in a moderate tempo with a string tremolando, many performers see this work as their precursor but that is wrong. This is a bold Beethovenian Allegro which needs to be given a proper fast tempo; our pianists rise to the challenge and do just that. They perfectly judge Beethoven’s marking of Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso – not too fast, a bit majestically – and the music is pushed forwards, but never to its detriment, as the radical drama of this music unfolds. Especially good is the start of the recapitulation where the pianos crash in with the opening idea – a bold, yet frightening, moment, and when, at the very end, the first theme is again proclaimed, fortissimo, in unison, it feels like the end of a long and arduous journey.
The Scherzo races headlong towards the even faster trio – which is played with such good heartedness that one can almost believe that Beethoven wasn’t the monster he is sometimes painted. I loved the pianists’ handling of this true joke of a trio, which is almost an oxymoron, so different to the scherzo which contains it. Their performance of the scherzo is of wildfire brilliance, the turmoil of the music displayed fully in all its naked glory. An amazing performance by any standards.
On a very basic level the slow movement is a set of double variations – two themes, each varied side by side – but here McCawley and Wass weave an idyll of calm and peace, even the loud octave statements of affirmation fade into the background as mere disturbances in a wide open landscape.
Then we come to the finale, and that tune – Alle Menschen werden Brüder, was Beethoven, perhaps, the first hippy? I know that I am not the only person to have problems with this finale. Beethoven was a born master of form, second to none – even Schubert – at the time, so why does he, after three truly magnificent movements, botch the job and write a very poorly constructed finale, setting words which make him create one of his most banal tunes and hop from idea to idea? I know that I have just set myself up for an attack from all lovers of this movement, but take a moment to think about this – what this Symphony really needs is not a vocal affirmation of brotherly love but an heroic, instrumental, affirmation in the manner of the great finale of the Fifth. Having said all that, I once heard a performance of this Symphony in the Great Hall of the Tchaikovsky (Moscow) Conservatoire, by Russian forces, for whom the music wasn’t under their fingers as it is in the west – the poor conductor lost the beat in the slow movement! It was a very moving experience for me, but that was more the idea of what was then an Eastern bloc country singing of universal love and friendship than the music itself. But I digress. Here we are, mercifully, spared the singing, and the music can be heard purely as music. It’s still a disaster as far as a formal piece of composition but the fugue is brilliantly handled and the double fugue glorious. Because of the lack of words the pianists let the music speak to us as it never could if burdened with text. The final peroration is quite stunning.
This is a very exciting and satisfying account of Beethoven’s Ninth, given by two of the best young pianists working today. An absolute must.
Bob Briggs

see also review by Michael Cookson



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