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Beethoven Reflections
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No 5 Op 67/S.464 No 5 (transcr. Franz Liszt, 1840-1865) [31:44]
An die ferne Geliebte S.469 (transcr. Franz Liszt, 1849) [12:40]
Piano Concerto No 3 Op 37 – I. Allegro con brio (transcr. Charles-Valentin Alkan, pub.1860) [17:57]
Leonardo Pierdomenico (piano)
rec. May, 2020 at Westvest Church Schiedam, the Netherlands

It was almost pre-ordained that the names of Beethoven and Liszt would be linked; both were pre-eminent masters of their times and had towering personalities. The idea that Liszt was making music of the concert hall readily available to a public that would not generally have access to it is a perfectly valid one and introducing such an important body this way was inevitable. There were however many musicians doing this and frankly in a manner that was more approachable to the average amateur music maker. Versions for four hands and straightforward solo piano versions amply filled that need and Liszt's daring transcriptions would remain beyond the talents of all but the most gifted amateurs (and perhaps many professionals of the time). Liszt recognised the revolutionary nature of these symphonies and given his own often rebellious nature reproducing them in terms of the piano must have been an itch that had to be scratched; that he devoted a period of some thirty years off and on to this massive undertaking seems to confirm this. In an age where a wide range of listening choices is available to us at the touch of a button it is still interesting, even thrilling to hear a good performance of Liszt's transcriptions and rewarding to see how he has negotiated the task of rethinking this music in pianistic terms. Some colour is obviously missing, the cello's voice in the andante con moto or the stabbing bite of the brass in the third movement allegro but in the hands of a skilled pianist the piano has its own rich textures to entrance and delight.

Leonardo Pierdomenico is such a pianist. His performance easily captures the excitement and vigour of the original and he is not daunted by any the extraordinary demands that Liszt places upon the pianist. His tight rhythmic control is evident from the start and having noted that instrumental colour is lost Pierdomenico does all he can to create light and texture – witness the horn solo followed by the violas early into the first movement. It is gripping playing throughout and his generally fast tempi still allow for all the intricate detail to come through with bright clarity – 3'55” into the andante con moto is a case in point as is the sensitivity on display at 5'54”, a real spinning plates moment. My other recording of this work is Leslie Howard in his complete edition for Hyperion records (CDS44501-98); he finds the same amount of detail but at times, the brass entry in the scherzo for instance, he is too earthbound for me and at 11'05” he is over two minutes slower in the andante con moto; at 8'55” Pierdomenico matches the kind of flowing tempo that Karajan or Toscanini adopts. I would also commend Pierdomenico's left hand work – his octaves are stunning and the fugue in the scherzo is a tour-de-force.

It is fitting that Alkan's solo piano transcription of Beethoven's third Piano Concerto's first movement allegro con brio should accompany the Liszt. Like Liszt and many other pianists and composers, Alkan composed his own cadenza but typically he chose to write an extended and quite diabolical fantasia, nearly 6 minutes in length, taking the melodies, scales, arpeggios, and chordal passage all found in Beethoven's original and recreating them in a larger-than-life surreal landscape. To this he adds his own quirky elements; the quasi-trombe staccatos or the magical, if haunting canon played against a shimmering backdrop of repeated notes. More to the point with regard to the fifth symphony is the sudden and startling appearance of the opening theme of the symphony's finale in a bold, grand gesture. Moving on, the Concerto's second theme receives the shimmering backdrop treatment though here the harmony is even more unsettling. A scurrying scherzo-like version of this brings us to a less triumphant re-iteration of the symphony theme before things die down to a trill. Normally this would be the cue for the conductor to bring the orchestra back in but no, Alkan has one more idea and plays the concerto's second theme in soprano and baritone duet around this long held trill. I would love to hear this cadenza played with the actual Concerto - Busoni played it in 1906 and apparently enraged Berlin critics, and doubtless many of the audience. I'm not sure that modern audiences would be happier about it even after a century has passed. Thankfully we have recorded versions as fine as this and is perhaps better that it is matched up with the grandiloquent solo treatment of the rest of the movement. Alkan is masterful in combining orchestra and soloist and, though the technical challenges are maybe greater even than in the Symphony transcription Pierdomenico is confident and electrifying in his presence and conviction. I have long enjoyed Marc-André Hamelin's live recording of this work (Hyperion CDA66765 not reviewed but a Musicweb international classic classic) and Pierdomenico is a match for Hamelin's mastery.

Liszt's more modest transcription of An die ferne Geliebte sits between these two gargantua. Beautifully crafted it receives a poised and elegant reading with the vocal lines clearly delineated whatever the register, especially the rich baritone; listen to the singer beseeching his beloved to take his songs and sing them in the evenings red glow, Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder.
You may imagine that I am quite taken with the pianism of this young Italian; I am not surprised that he is a prizewinner in many competitions, including a jury discretionary award at the 2017 Van Cliburn and semi-finalist at the 2016 Queen Elisabeth. He certainly creates the impression that these works were intended for the piano and it is only their utter familiarity that confounds that. There is an Alkan transcription of the complete Mozart D minor Concerto K.466 and I feel Pierdomenico would be a perfect pianist for that. Notes, by Alkan specialist Mark Viner, are in English only.

Rob Challinor

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