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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Transcriptions for solo piano by Franz Liszt
Symphony No. 1 in C major, S.464/1 [26:32]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, S.464/2 [34:22]
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, ‘Eroica’, S. 464/3 [53:14]
Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, S.464/4 [32:53]
Symphony No.5 in C minor, S.464/5 [35:58]
Symphony No. 6 in F major, ‘Pastoral’ S.464/6 [44:53]
Symphony No. 7 in A major, S.464/7 [41:04]
Symphony No. 8 in F major , S.464/8 [28:31]
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, ‘Choral’, S.464/9 [70:49]
Yury Martynov (piano)
rec. 2011-15 ALPHA 374 [6 CDs: 366:34]
In April 2016 the French label Alpha released the final instalment of Yuri Martynov’s complete cycle of Beethoven Symphonies in the solo piano transcriptions of Liszt. That was a visionary account of the 9th Symphony. The other eight symphonies had been released over four years on the Zig-Zag Territories label, and as both of these independents are part of the Outhere group of Franco-Belgian labels it has presumably been straightforward for Alpha to release the complete set in an attractively presented box, with excellent annotations.
The notion that any transcription by Liszt (let alone those of these Beethoven symphonies) could in any way constitute merely a ‘reduction’ of the orchestral original was blown apart by that extraordinary, expansive reading of the 9th. Liszt may have been the big cat virtuoso of his day but he humbly recognised Beethoven’s unique genius. The notes include a translation of Liszt’s own preface to the first publication in 1865 of these ‘versions’ – and a fine and moving document it is too. Certainly his take on the symphonies amply justify their existence when performed, produced and recorded like this.
Until I heard Martynov in this repertoire, the accounts I listened to most readily were those by Cyprien Katsaris on Teldec (2564 60865-2). The other recording I knew was the Leslie Howard set on Hyperion (CDA 66671-5 - part of his exhaustive complete Liszt piano cycle). Both of these sets were of course recorded on modern instruments. In fact I first encountered these transcriptions in the Howard recording which to be honest I found underwhelming. The recording seemed oddly arid and uninvolving (most unusually for Hyperion), the playing was of course brilliant, but ultimately a little too earnest and academic, to my ears at least. These are sweeping and unfair generalisations of course as I’m sure I must have experienced moments of clarification and revelation as well (these are the Beethoven symphonies we’re discussing after all!!). Over the next few years I got to know occasional recordings of individual symphonies, notably Glenn Gould’s takes on No 5 (Sony SMK 52636 -compelling but allegedly with strange four-hand overdubs) and No 6 (Sony SMK 52637 -also compelling but infuriatingly slow …it’s nearly an hour long!!). I’ve heard a couple of Konstantin Scherbakov’s Naxos discs which seemed well recorded but didn’t really catch fire as interpretations for me. Katsaris, though, offers carefully considered, wonderfully played and consistently insightful readings, the modern piano caught with impeccable clarity in Teldec’s precision recording. The point has often been made about Katsaris’s versions over the years- its success may lie in the fact that he’s conveying the Beethoven rather than the Liszt- it’s a view I certainly share and it’s not stated here in any pejorative sense.
Martynov’s astonishing achievement on the present discs certainly does not consign Katsaris to some sort of runners-up’ enclosure, however. It is a very different beast indeed. It must be stated without delay however that notwithstanding the Russian’s often miraculous playing, he has two co-stars here whose very presence enables him to open up an entirely new direction in Beethoven, Liszt, or Beethoven/Liszt interpretation! These are the two historical pianos on which he performs. They are an 1837 Erard (for Nos 1, 2, 6 and 7) and an 1867 Blüthner (for the rest). Of course there have been some fascinating recordings of core 19th century piano repertoire on contemporary instruments in recent years – three recent examples that come to mind include two by Andras Schiff on ECM (in Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations on ECM 481 0446 and in Schubert on ECM 481 1572 - review) and Krystian Zimerman’s revelatory account of Schubert’s two final sonatas on a specially adapted instrument (DG 479 7588 - review) In each case one begins to appreciate in literal terms what the composers may have heard themselves, and thus more easily speculate why they wrote for the keyboards of the time in the ways that they did. Quite apart from which, once the ear attunes, the colours produced by these instruments can be utterly ravishing.
Be that as it may, with these two pianos Martynov takes this approach to another level. Bruno Moysan’s lucid and fascinating note tells us that Liszt completed this monumental undertaking in two phases separated by roughly a quarter of a century; the original transcriptions of Symphonies 5-7 were completed between 1837 and 1840 and dedicated to the great French painter Ingres. The Marcia funebre from the Eroica followed in 1843, but the other movements would have to wait until 1863-4 when Liszt returned to this task and completed the remaining symphonies. The two pianos selected here partially reflect these two phases, thus Symphonies 6 and 7 are played on the earlier Erard instrument which is broadly contemporary with their conception; the original couplings paired these with Symphonies 1 and 2 and although these transcriptions emerged thirty years down the line their more classical gait arguably better suits their rendition on this Erard. The remaining symphonies are given on the extraordinary 1867 Blüthner instrument which produces a yet more dazzling array of burnished colours and is obviously contemporary with the completion of the later transcriptions, Symphonies 3, 4, 8 & 9.
The Symphony I’ve not mentioned so far is No.5. This was actually the earliest of the transcriptions Liszt completed (in 1837) but is performed here on the later instrument – with good reason. It receives an absolutely blazing performance from Martynov – I earnestly felt I was hearing this old war-horse completely anew. One could argue that interpretatively speaking a solo pianist has more control over the outcome of a performance than an orchestral conductor. I’m sure some may say that Martynov takes liberties but I feel that if he does so at all it is to maximise the expressive potential of the music, to show off the massive sonic opportunities provided by the instrument and to display his own unimpeachable but utterly humane virtuosity; often all three of these qualities emerge simultaneously. I urge all readers to experience this reading at least once – your jaws will drop. The coupling on this disc, No. 4, is often portrayed as the Cinderella of the canon – not here. At times Martynov’s playing is flexible enough to incorporate a degree of analytical detail in the parts one might more readily associate with Glenn Gould. This really works with the Fourth symphony on this piano (especially the final Allegro ma non troppo) and I would argue that this single disc alone would justify the outlay on the box regardless of what else lay within.
But all of the discs offer treasures aplenty. Symphonies 3 and 8 were originally issued together – here they occupy single discs. The transcription of the Eroica perhaps contains the most ‘Liszt’ of them all – by definition a degree of bravura is involved and Martynov is more than equal to its immense demands. Again, the detail that emerges casts new light on the work. I found the lovably po-faced 8th on the other hand rather overblown here especially towards its conclusion. Would that Gould had tackled this symphony!!
The first two releases in the set coupled Nos 1 & 7 and Nos 6 & 2. To my ears Martynov’s magnificent playing and the more subtle, autumnal sounds of the Erard combine wonderfully in all four of these symphonies. In both the Pastoral and No 7 one becomes even more aware of this pianist’s skilful, judicious use of rubato which to my ears never seems wilful and almost always designed to draw out previously unimagined possibilities in the music, largely by leading his audience towards more attentive listening. Brian Reinhart’s original review of the single disc release of Symphonies 1 & 7 gently criticises Martynov’s reading of the First Symphony in similar terms to my stated issues with the Eighth; although I have to say I found the pianist’s liberties in the First less intrusive than my colleague did.
As for the Symphony No 9, I found this account utterly spellbinding from first bar to last. The initial moments of the opening Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso on this instrument sound almost impressionistic; these first bars instigate a blazing, imaginative interpretation that yields new details with each listen. One can only marvel at Martynov’s ability to make dangerous creative choices in each movement, especially in terms of tempo, and yet produce a whole that is both structurally convincing and sonically captivating. Dominy Clements’ review of the single disc provides more a more detailed analysis of this Ninth than I can include in my review of the set, but it will be clear that I share his admiration of this performance.
This set seems to be retailing at a bargain price. Recordings of Liszt’s transcriptions of these symphonies are gradually becoming more regular, but I find it hard to believe that Martynov’s achievement in this eminently desirable set will be matched any time soon, let alone surpassed.