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ClassicsOnline Home » BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphonies (arr. F. Liszt for piano), Vol. 4 (Biret) - No. 3, "Eroica" (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 13)
“Listening to Beethoven through Liszt’s keyboard transcriptions put a afresh perspective on these familiar symphonies. Idil Biret has taken up the complete cycle and I admire her taste, technique and sound musical decision.” (New York Magazine)
“Idil Biret gives an impressive performance. A supreme mastery of tempi, sonorities, polyphony and technique permits Biret—a disciple of Alfred Cortot—to embrace all the moods of Beethoven and gives her playing a symphonic depth rarely heard until now.” (Le Nouvel Observateur)
“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
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Symphony No. 3 ‘Eroica’ (transcribed by Franz Liszt, S464/R128)
Born at Raiding, in Hungary, in 1811, the son of Adam Liszt, a steward in the service of Haydn’s former patrons, the Esterházy Princes, Franz Liszt had early encouragement from members of the Hungarian nobility, allowing him in 1822 to move to Vienna, for lessons with Czerny and a famous meeting with Beethoven. From there he moved to Paris, where Cherubini refused him admission to the Conservatoire. Nevertheless he was able to impress audiences by his performance, now supported by the Erard family, piano manufacturers whose wares he was able to advertise in the concert tours on which he embarked. In 1827 Adam Liszt died, and Franz Liszt was now joined again by his mother in Paris, while using his time to teach, to read and benefit from the intellectual society with which he came into contact. His interest in virtuoso performance was renewed when he heard the great violinist Paganini, whose technical accomplishments he now set out to emulate.
The years that followed brought a series of compositions, including transcriptions of songs and operatic fantasies, part of the stock-in-trade of a virtuoso. Liszt’s relationship with a married woman, the Comtesse Marie d’Agoult, led to his departure from Paris for years of travel abroad, first to Switzerland, then back to Paris, before leaving for Italy, Vienna and Hungary. By 1844 his relationship with his mistress, the mother of his three children, was at an end, but his concert activities continued until 1847, the year in which his association began with Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, a Polish heiress, the estranged wife of a Russian prince. The following year he settled with her in Weimar, the city of Goethe, turning his attention now to the development of a newer form of orchestral music, the symphonic poem, and, as always, to the revision and publication of earlier compositions.
It was in 1861, at the age of fifty, that Liszt moved to Rome, following Princess Carolyne, who had settled there a year earlier. Divorce and annulment seemed to have opened the way to their marriage, but they now continued to live in separate apartments in the city. Liszt eventually took minor orders and developed a pattern of life that divided his time between Weimar, where he imparted advice to a younger generation, Rome, where he was able to pursue his religious interests, and Pest, where he returned now as a national hero. He died in 1886 in Bayreuth, where his daughter Cosima, former wife of Hans von Bülow and widow of Richard Wagner, lived, concerned with the continued propagation of her husband’s music.
Whatever the accuracy of Liszt’s account, fifty years later, of his meeting with Beethoven in Vienna through the insistence of his then teacher, Czerny, he continued always to hold Beethoven in the greatest respect, a reverence reflected in his activities in the cause of the Beethoven Monuments in Bonn and Vienna and festivals of Beethoven’s music, and in his inclusion of Beethoven’s piano compositions in his recitals.
During the summer of 1837, spent at the country house of George Sand at Nohant, Liszt, accompanied there by Marie d’Agoult, worked on his piano transcriptions of Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6, published in 1840, with a transcription of Symphony No. 7. Three years later he made a transcription of the funeral march from the Eroica Symphony. These early versions of Beethoven symphonies were later to be revised and supplemented by transcriptions of the six other symphonies, including, after some reluctance, the Choral Symphony. The new transcriptions were made in 1863 and 1864, with the last movement of the Choral Symphony, over which he had hesitated, added in 1865. In 1863 Liszt had moved to a retreat outside Rome at the monastery of Madonna del Rosario on Monte Mario. Here he occupied a room of great simplicity, with a small and defective piano at his disposal, although the relative tranquillity of his life was occasionally interrupted by visitors, including, on one significant occasion, Pope Pius IX. It was at the urging of Breitkopf and Härtel that he now undertook the revision of his earlier transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies and the completion of the whole set, which was published in 1865 with a dedication to his son-in-law, the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow.
The transcriptions must speak for themselves. Liszt is meticulous in his accurate reproduction of original phrasing and his specification, where necessary, of the original instrumentation. Critics have compared his transcriptions favourably with the earlier piano versions of the symphonies by the virtuoso pianist Kalkbrenner, a pioneer in this field. Liszt does not primarily seek for technical display, however demanding the transcriptions may be. He is particularly adept in his solution of problems of balance and sonority, and helpful in the suggested fingerings that are included and in the care taken to distinguish parts in notation.
The Eroica Symphony makes considerable demands on a transcriber. Here more than ever Liszt is able to capture the essence of the work, giving sonority through the use of syncopation or divided octaves, never obscuring the part-writing and avoiding the over-dense lower register textures once familiar from four-hand versions of the symphonies, the form in which the works often became more widely known. The funeral march keeps all its original tension, as string chords punctuate the oboe repetition of the main theme. The major trio section, here marked dolce cantando, makes its effect by adjusting the broken triads of the violins. In this movement the contrapuntal writing is fully and effectively displayed, Liszt often revealing his understanding of the work by his very omissions. The Scherzo, as effective as ever in this form, frames the Trio, with its three French horns in characteristic figuration. The Prometheus variations of the Finale, after the initial flourish and the announcement of the skeletal bass of the theme, bring a limpid display of counterpoint, relaxing into the Poco andante sixth variation and the fuller seventh, before the demanding octave-writing of the concluding Presto.
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.
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BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphonies (arr. F. Liszt for p...