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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Piano Transcriptions of Beethovenís Symphonies Nos. 4 and 6 Pastoral S464/R128)
Symphony No.4 in B Flat Major, Op.60 [33:01]
Symphony No.6 in F Major, Op.69 Pastoral [39:30]
Konstantin Scherbakov (piano)
Recorded at Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk, 5-7 December 2000 (No.4); 5-7 June 2002 (No.6)
Liszt Complete Piano Music Ė Volume 19
NAXOS 8.557170 [72:31]

I have to confess that Lisztís transcriptions for piano of Beethovenís symphonies were completely new to me so this disc has proved a complete surprise. My first reaction is that Beethovenís supreme inventiveness is equally clear in these transcriptions as it is in their original versions; that is also a tribute to Liszt. These works must be extremely taxing for the performer as thereís no let up in them. Liszt does his utmost to have the piano cover as much of the orchestraís role as is possible, and pretty well succeeds.

Liszt wrote of the piano, in a letter to Adolphe Pictet, that "in the space of its seven octaves it contains the range of a whole orchestra, and the ten fingers of a single man are enough to render the harmonies produced by the concurrence of over a hundred concerted instruments". From a fellow reviewer I borrowed the complete set of the transcriptions of all the symphonies (Harmonia Mundi, HMX 29011 92-98) (They are also available on Naxos from the pianist on this review disc, and at budget price). I was therefore able to compare 3 different pianists as Harmonia Mundi have Michel Dalberto playing the Pastoral and Alain Planès as pianist on the No.4. I also got out my set of symphonies with Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music. I was struck by the timings:

Symphony No.6

Konstantin Scherbakov 39:90

Michel Dalberto 40:49

Christopher Hogwood 41:13

Symphony No.4

Konstantin Scherbakov 33:01

Alain Planès 32:03

Christopher Hogwood 35:16

Of course this is not a scientific way of proving that Liszt left nothing out but itís my impression that he left out nothing of substance. No, these works of Liszt are his homage to the great composer he was fortunate enough to meet shortly after moving to Vienna in 1822, at the age of 11. In fact it was in the newspaper Allegemeiner Theaterzeitung, in 1839, that critic Heinrich Adam wrote of Lisztís own rendition of the last three movements of the Pastoral "The transcription of this great and complicated composition for the pianoforte was a task as daring as it was difficult, if it was not to be only a brilliant concert piece, but much more than that, a work without arbitrary additions or omissions reproduced with artistic fidelity and scrupulousness according to its innermost being, and only an artist like Liszt, who with an unbounded reverence for Beethoven, has rare gifts in understanding the great German master, only such an artist was able and dared venture on so dangerous an undertaking".

It is a strange experience at first to hear music that is so instantly recognisable and familiar in a version for a solo instrument rather than the 46 that play in my Christopher Hogwood disc of the "Pastoral". However, very soon I was so involved in the music that although I knew what was coming and could sing along or whistle to the theme, I didnít feel acutely aware of the missing strings, etc. Naturally some moments brought me back to the realisation that I was hearing a lone piano, the birdsong in the second movement, being an obvious example.

Amazingly, however, I found myself hearing echoes of Alkan, that strange piano visionary, especially on track 4 of this symphony, the Allegro describing the thunderstorm. Those of you who know of Alkan do see if you agree. Of course Alkanís dates (1813-1888) almost mirror those of Liszt (1811-1886). I think we can be fairly safe in the assumption that they heard each other play. Itís not that Liszt has changed any of Beethovenís music but the way he has transcribed it makes it sound uncannily similar to such works of Alkan as the "Allegro Barbaro".

Comparing the two versions of the "Pastoral" symphony I found that Michel Dalberto from the Harmonia Mundi set lacked the drive that made Konstantin Scherbakov sound like a man possessed when called for, especially in the aforementioned track 4. Dalberto plays in a rather lacklustre fashion with none of the fire that illuminates Scherbakovís performance. However, itís not to say that Scherbakov canít produce gentle, hushed toned when called upon to do so, witness the calm after the storm. The whole experience of listening to such a work for a solo piano played by this consummate artist is nothing short of revelatory.

Listening to Lisztís transcription of Symphony No.8 was also a fascinating experience. Right from the very first notes I had the impression that Alain Planès was playing someone elseís music whilst Konstantin Scherbakov sounded to me as if he was playing his own music. His rendition was so natural the music seemed to flow from his very being Ė it was quite uncanny. It was a superb performance that made me want to rush out to find other works he has played. At the Lucerne Festival Scherbakov was hailed by the critics as a modern Rachmaninov and I can see why. Iím hungry to hear his playing of that composerís works and wonder if Rachmaninov ever recorded these transcriptions. If he did there would be some thrilling comparisons to be made.

To sum up: transcriptions like these are true vehicles for virtuosity and demand virtuosos to perform them. Neither Michel Dalberto nor Alain Planès demonstrate the unremitting drive required to bring these works off. Konstantin Scherbakov, by contrast, plays with a white-hot intensity that makes for thrilling listening and the result is that Lisztís work on transcribing these symphonies is allowed to stand on its own without any comparison with the original works being made, even unwittingly. If like me you have never heard these transcriptions before you are in for a treat. The whole exercise has made me eager to explore the rest of this series.

Steve Arloff



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