Friday, 16 January 2015

Love Beethoven Symphonies but getting a bit jaded? Try Liszt's piano transcriptions! Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back!

Almost everybody who likes classical music rapidly listens to Beethoven's nine symphonies - buys recordings, picks out their special favourites - and then listens then to death!

Eventually what Colin Wilson terms 'the robot' in our minds takes over listening to Beethoven Symphonies it can become hard to listen afresh.

Well, one way to renew the experience is to listen to Liszt's piano transcriptions which bring out whole new aspects of the pieces, with a wonderful clarity, lyricism and excitement.

Glenn Gould played a few, including the wondrous Pastoral (number 6) :

And some kind person has put ALL of the transcribed symphonies on YouTub played by a chap called Cyprien Katsaris who has a real feel for this music. Here is number 5 - Daa-Da-Da Daaah:

So which are my favourites?

1. Number 3 the Eroica. One of my very favourite pieces of music of all, one of the most significant pieces of music ever written. Exciting, optimistic, delicious, noble and superbly adept and innovative.

I love the first and last movements especially. (Actually this one does go significantly better with full orchestra - but I love the alternative tonic dominant end cadences on piano).

2. Number 6 the Pastoral. The first one I liked, a joy from first to last, and a wonder indeed.

These two above the rest - and all the others I like except... number 9, the contrived and clunky 'choral' symphony; which I usually don't enjoy much, except for the short tenor solo in an otherwise mostly raucous and shrill finale.

Still - in the piano transcription you can escape the endlessly shrieking sopranos...!


Note: In general, and with one shining exception, I do not agree with the sophisticated view that 'late' Beethoven is the best - I find the late stuff to be too constipated; Beethoven is trying too hard to overcome the loss of his lyrical facility and being too consciously experimental and innovative. The shining exception is the Piano Sonata number 32in C minor Opus 111 - the second 'variations' movement is simply one of the most wonderful things ever written by anybody; as was recognized by Thomas Mann who put a whole chapter analyzing it into his novel Doktor Faustus. BUt as a rule I accept the common consent of the middlebrow concert-going, record-buying masses that the best Beethoven is in his 'middle' period.


John Repsher said...

I agree with your assessment of the opus 111. It's my favorite among his piano sonatas. I first discovered it when I read Dr. Faustus in my youth. As an amateur pianist, I find it a devil of a thing to play. It's especially tough controlling the trills at the end. It's really worth it, though.

Nicholas Fulford said...

Perhaps it is because it was the first Beethoven symphony I heard played by an orchestra, but I love the 7th symphony, and especially the 2nd movement. It holds a special place for me, which I visit every so often with joy.


Jonathan C said...

The piano transcriptions are great for hearing the counterpoint and its harmonies more directly. Although you lose the different instrumental timbres, you gain more focus on how the music is constructed.

I have two recordings, both very good: Leslie Howard's recording on Hyperion, part of his series of Liszt's Complete Music for Solo Piano; and Konstantin Scherbakov's recording on Naxos, part of Naxos' multi-artist series of Liszt's Complete Music for Solo Piano. I give Scherbakov's playing a small edge (and Naxos' prices a big edge), though I don't regret the variety of having both interpretations, and Howard's scholarly and extensive liner notes are priceless.

Also, Liszt made earlier, even more virtuosic transcriptions of the 5th, 6th, and 7th, which Howard recorded as a separate volume.