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Franz LISZT (1811-86)
Complete Piano Music, Vol. 21

Transcription of Symphony No 9 in D minor, Op 125, by Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827), S464/R128
Konstantin Scherbakov (piano)
recorded at Potton Hall, Suffolk, 2-3 June 2003
NAXOS 8.557366 [65'03"]

Donít fall into the trap of considering this an eccentric curiosity! This is an expert reading of an almost completely convincing transcription of one of musicís most seminal masterpieces: so, a splendid CD of a great (but little known) piano sonata!

The truth is that many composers sketch their material - certainly their first ideas - without being clear about its eventual Ďdestinationí or scoring. And in the course of working on that material, it doesnít necessarily change significantly simply because itís assigned to this or that instrument, or because it finds itself in this or that context. Handel, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert and Beethoven all published pieces in two (several more, in some cases) instrumentations. Even Ravel, that most resourceful of writers for the orchestra, published arrangements or rather reincarnations, for piano which in no way betray their origin: indeed, we canít always be sure which he penned first!

For this reason, it could be said that 90% of Lisztís transcription is as pianistic as it is orchestral: and thereís very little erasing or modifying of detail for the sake of the new medium. The problemís the remaining 10% - but rest assured, itís not a big problem!

Quite often, left and right hand have to deliver contrapuntal ideas an octave or two apart which, in Beethovenís score, are separated by tone colour, wind versus strings, for example, rather than by pitch. But this arrangement usually works well, and, letís be honest, sometimes even better - more clearly - than the original. Of course itís not often that Beethoven gives us an idea which is uniquely orchestral anyway. You could cite the isolated bars of timpani in the scherzo, the mysterious string Ďtremolosí (but theyíre not tremolos: theyíre measured sextuplets) in the opening pages, or the military percussion in the finale. These are the only disappointments. You may miss the voices, especially solo voices, in the finale: but, if youíve made the necessary aural adjustments, you may not! And there are advantages: the hair-raising discord which prefaces the first vocal entry is far better balanced on the piano than it is in the orchestra!

On this recording, Scherbakov is meticulous in differentiating by means of articulation between one idea and its counterpart, so hearing superimposed lines isnít a problem for us, despite the nominal lack of tonal contrast on a supposedly-monochrome instrument. Occasionally, sustained, especially high-lying or slow-moving, melodic material loses its sense of line when transferred to the piano, given its decaying sound characteristic. But of course the same is true of Ďgenuineí piano music: itís one of those everyday problems the pianist has to deal with. Liszt himself almost never glamourises Beethoven: when it sounds more like Liszt than Beethoven (those multiple unison octaves of the opening movement?) itís usually purely coincidental!

I must say Iíve admired everything Scherbakov has done for Naxos to date. Heís got all the artistic and technical credentials to bring this, and most other programmes, off, and seems to have immersed himself in this music. Itís a remarkable achievement.

Think of it this way. Forget Liszt. Fancy instead a recording of Beethovenís sublime Piano Sonata in D minor, Op 125 - his last, and by far his most substantial, for the instrument? Well, this is it: itís cheap, itís good, and itís in a shop near you!

Peter J Lawson

see also review by Patrick Waller Recording of the Year

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