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ClassicsOnline Home » BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphonies (arr. F. Liszt for piano), Vol. 1 (Biret) - Nos. 1, 2 (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 2)
“From the outset of the 1st Symphony one feels that Idil Biret grasps the size of Beethoven’s style. The polyphony is laid out in a relaxed way with little indulgence in point-making. She keeps her big line, and yet is thankfully sparing in her use of fortissimos. I especially admire how she is able to give the impression of a live performance in the Larghetto from the 2nd, and here, as in other slow movements, one is reminded that her mentor has been Wilhelm Kempff…This is a remarkable achievement.” (Gramophone) “Universally gifted pianists like Idil Biret, who do not limit themselves to a cleverly selected repertory are nowadays very rare…With the recent release of the Beethoven / Liszt Symphonies international recognition should be secure for her.” (Fonoforum)
By David Denton
The second disc in the Idil Biret archive was first released by EMI in the 1980s and brings the first in a cycle of the Franz Liszt piano transcriptions of Beethoven’s complete symphonies. I recall at the time the impact the set made, many critics discovering a ‘new’ virtuoso tackling a monumental undertaking. Today we forget that the great German composer did not receive universal acclaim in his lifetime, and it was left to his dedicated champions, which numbered Liszt, to plead his continued cause. That could be served by giving those without orchestral access the opportunity to experience his symphonic music in piano transcriptions. In remaining as true to the original scores as possible, he still had to write it in pianistic terms with the changes it entailed. That fact suggested to Biret that she could, with justification, add modifications she believed would take the transcriptions even closer to the original. As the accompanying sleeve note enumerates those changes I will not dwell on them, apart from commenting that Biret’s performances capture the scale and shape of Beethoven’s creation in a way that I find totally satisfying. At the same time I would add that the weight and textural density of these two symphonies are the most easily transcribed of the whole cycle, and where there is drama, Biret is never wanting. I equally delight in her vivacious mood at such points as the scherzo of the Second symphony and the tenderness of the slow movement.The sound quality was not remarkable for the 1980s, but will not disappoint.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 (transcribed by Franz Liszt)
At the start of the BBC Third Programme in the late 1940s I tuned in to the series of live performances of Liszt Transcriptions of the Beethoven Nine Symphonies. This daring project was welcomed by discerning listeners who believed that Franz Liszt deserved the accolade of the Greatest All-Round Musician of the Romantic Age. These broadcasts featured several older international celebrities and various selected younger players who had made their mark on the airwaves. The performances though, left much to be desired. Thirty years went by before I spotted Idil Biret’s six-LP box set prominently displayed in a London West End shop window. Was this just a superb feat of endurance by a lady pianist unknown to me, who had ventured to record all nine? The German-EMI imports implied special exclusivity; not so the performances and interpretations which were to open up new vistas of appreciation and understanding that would carry this artist into the regions of the internationally famous. Beside original works for piano and orchestra, vocal or choral forces (including so-called paraphrases and the many arrangements), the Liszt-Beethoven transcriptions were in a league of their own.
Liszt’s adoration of Beethoven began when he was just eleven, but the account of their actual meeting was not disclosed until over fifty years later in 1875 to his pupil Ilka Horowitz-Barnay. The unwilling, gloomy Beethoven reluctantly agreed to Carl Czerny’s request to hear his young pupil Franz, beginning with a piece by Ferdinand Ries. Then he was asked to play a Bach Fugue and transcribe it into another key. ‘A devil of a fellow…a regular young Turk!’ came forth from the composer giant, and when it was followed by a rendering of the first movement of his C major Concerto he caught hold of the prodigy with both hands. Kissing the young man’s forehead, he quietly said, ‘Go! You are one of the fortunate ones! For you will give joy and happiness to many other people! There is nothing better or finer’.
After spending over 25 years perfecting his piano transcriptions of Beethoven’s Symphonies, Liszt made it his artistic mission to promote his musical cause to an unwilling public, just as Berlioz was trying to achieve in France. The Hammerklavier Sonata, deemed impossibly difficult and hard to understand, became a Liszt speciality, while Beethoven’s death mask and Broadwood Piano became his personal treasures. Beethoven’s statue in Bonn erected in 1845 commemorates the 75th anniversary of his birth, but as Liszt biographer Alan Walker points out: ‘...We must remember that Beethoven was, a hundred and twenty years ago, by no means the universally admired figure that he has since become. Beethoven was Liszt’s god; Liszt was Beethoven’s prophet’.
Throughout his long life, Liszt directed performances of Beethoven Symphonies. While the penny-pinching attitude of festival organizers failing to engage sufficient players is well documented, Sir George Smart relates how Liszt was forced to rehearse in the arena attached to a riding school. Alarming complications were also to involve the later works, and it is not surprising that soloists, chorus and orchestra came to grief during a rehearsal of the last movement of Symphony No. 9.
Such was the acuteness of his hearing and his amazing capabilities for resolving technical problems, that Liszt absorbed literally every strand of Beethoven’s music. During his heyday as a pianist, he first started transcribing the symphonies, fully aware of the enormous difficulties this would impose on all pianists, even those of the finest calibre. Following their completion, and this included second versions of some, he wrote a preface declaring his aims: ‘I confess that I should have to regard it as a rather useless employment of my time if I had added but one more version of the Symphonies in the usual manner; but I consider my time well employed if I have succeeded in transferring to the piano not only the grand outlines of Beethoven’s compositions but also those numerous fine details and smaller traits that so powerfully contribute to the completion of the ensemble. Rome 1865’. This two page holograph, thought to be lost, was rediscovered with Liszt’s signature.
For Liszt and his admirers, even in their piano version these symphonies still sounded orchestral. The timbre of chords, the spaciousness of phrases and overall construction adds authenticity in stature and meaning, in keeping with their nobility of gesture and dramatic-poetic content. Personally, I think that Beethoven should always sound this way, and can never understand the desiccated sounds of a limited number of original orchestral instruments attempting to recapture present time authentic aims and demands, and sounding brash and small-toned in the process. This is all hearsay, but I concede it depends on the director in charge.
This introduction, I hope, will better succeed if I persuade listeners that Idil Biret’s playing imparts an accurate path between the classical beginnings of the early First Symphony in its crisp rendering, through to the sudden upsurges of romantic ardour in No. 2 and the remainder, with an increasing regard for the wonderful achievements of the older German School of conductors such as Wilhelm Furtwängler and Hans Knappertsbusch together with the particular burnished singing tone of pianists such as Wilhelm Backhaus—up to 1950, and the half-tone shadings and penetrating philosophical perception of pianists such as Wilhelm Kempff.
Transcribing took place as follows: the 1st and 3rd in 1863; the third in 1863 for the first third and fourth movements—the second movement’s (Funeral March) original transcription dates from 1841, later revised to conform with the rest; the 4th in 1863; the 5th in 1835–37; the 6th also in 1835–37, although a simplified version (then a final version) was made at Breitkopf and Härtel’s request; the 7th in 1838; the 8th in 1863. The 9th was also ready by 1863, although by the end of 1851 there was a transcription for two pianos, published two years on. We have to thank Liszt’s publishers in getting him to complete the Finale of the 9th, adding extra staves for the vocal-choral part.
On Liszt’s Piano Transcriptions of the Beethoven Symphonies
A piano will never possess the same powerful sound as an orchestra notwithstanding its immense resources. I remember at the Paris Conservatoire we had to make piano reductions of orchestral scores at sight. The professor would bring to class a symphony we did not know and ask the student to play it on the piano. On these occasions we found that by playing very loud and abusing the pedal nearly all the time we thought we were able to recreate to a certain extent the effects of a large symphony orchestra. This was of course an illusion: what sounded to us almost like an orchestra became a mixture of discordant sounds for the listener. The greatest compliment one could pay the interpreter of a symphonic transcription would be to tell him that it sounds just as if the original had been conceived for the piano. Two qualities are absolutely indispensable to achieve this: perfect clarity of articulation and a polyphonic spirit. In theory, one ought to read each line independently, giving a different timbre to each. But, this is quite impracticable. Yet, details and subtleties can be made more intelligible for the listener by following the score in as linear a fashion as possible. Another important point is not to fall into pure virtuosity. Liszt was faithful to the original in his transcriptions in every point, but without imposing any gratuitous virtuoso effects.
Tempo is also of importance in playing symphonic transcriptions. The pianist must always choose the tempo which will best facilitate comprehension. For this reason, in performing and recording the Beethoven Symphonies, I sometimes sacrificed the rapidity of tempo a little in order to place more emphasis on the unity, regularity and implacability of the rhythm. There are also some cases, in the Ninth Symphony for instance, where it is necessary to take a slower tempo on the piano as, otherwise, if played too fast the mass effects are swamped by lack of clarity.
Transcriptions are without doubt the only musical works where an interpreter can introduce modifications to the score that are seen necessary to achieve a better understanding of the original. In my interpretations I have followed Liszt’s admirable text as closely as possible. Nevertheless, certain changes seemed desirable. For example, some chords when held by the orchestra do not stop vibrating. Yet, on the piano the sound of a chord fades unavoidably after a moment. So, it was necessary to create the illusion of continuous sound. The only way for me to be able to do this was to add a group of notes already contained in the chord which, when played pianissimo, gave this impression. Another example can be found in the Ninth Symphony where the problems are greater because Liszt often tends here to ‘suggest’ rather than literally transcribe Beethoven’s score. In certain passages Liszt’s ‘suggestions’ thus had to be further interpreted. In performing this symphony I often superimposed Liszt’s text and ‘ossias’ which, when played together, produced a better orchestral impression.
Finally, there remains the problem of the repeats, linked to the length of the works and the finite limits of record length as these symphonies were intended for initial production on LP. I have elected to play a number of repeats: in the finale of the First Symphony, in the first movement of the Fifth, the first movement of the Eighth and the last movement of the Ninth.
by Idil Biret
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BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphonies (arr. F. Liszt for p...