, September 2006
This disc brings Konstantin Scherbakov’s Liszt/Beethoven cycle to a rousing conclusion. Those who have been collecting this series will already be rushing into the stores, real or virtual, to snap this issue up. Those who are as yet unfamiliar with Liszt’s Beethoven transcriptions should do the same.
Beethoven’s music is omnipresent in our 21st century world. We come to know his symphonies through a plethora of media: television commercials, film soundtracks, radio broadcasts, attendance at concerts and by washing our ears in an infinite ocean of recordings on 78s, SACDs and everything in between.
We look at Beethoven more as a trailblazer of symphonic form rather than its summation, as the Romantics did. They either tried to match him, or declared the symphony dead. Those in the former camp included, for example, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Bruckner. Of the leaders of the latter camp, Wagner turned to opera and Liszt, when composing for orchestra, pioneered the symphonic poem. Both camps, however, venerated the “canon” of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, at least as much as we do today, if not more so.
In Liszt’s day, though, the dissemination of this legendary music was much more difficult than it is for us. Edison only patented his phonograph in 1896, just under a decade before Liszt’s death, and it was much too primitive to capture a symphony. Beethoven’s symphonies were performed live, but contemporary music held sway in the concert hall and if you lived any distance from a decent orchestra, your chances of attending a concert were slim. A larger percentage of the emerging middle class could read scores than nowadays, so listening to the music in your head or plinking out bits of it on the fortepiano were options. There were also arrangements for chamber ensemble of some of the symphonies, the arrangement of the second symphony for piano trio usually attributed to Beethoven being the one that comes to mind.
Liszt’s transcriptions served a dual purpose of providing a new vehicle for his virtuosity and bringing this magnificent music to a wider public. Unlike his operatic paraphrases and many of his other arrangements, which are wildly exciting and heavily rouged, Liszt’s transcriptions of these two symphonies were clearly respectful labours of love. His preservation of the musical lines is painstaking. Ornamentation is written into the scores sparingly to fill out textures, not to distract from the musical argument.
I have been listening to the seventh symphony a good deal of late. I recently purchased Barenboim’s Beethoven cycle with the Staatskapelle Berlin…That being the case, I expected to miss the sound of the orchestra when listening to this piano transcription. I did not. I even caught myself listening to this piano version of the seventh in my mind’s ear in when I woke up one morning! The magnetism of Scherbakov’s pianism is that convincing. He is a masterful pianist, fully attuned to the dynamic differences Beethoven demands, able to play piano with a firm touch, and to bring a singing tone in his forte.
Scherbakov sculpts the introduction to first movement of the seventh with subtlety, and renders the main theme with grandeur. His account of the slow movement is grave without being lachrymose and his use of rubato is subtle. His scherzo is playful, if a little understated. Only in the finale of the seventh does the transcription sound a little ponderous and the textures thin, and I suspect that both Liszt and Scherbakov are equally at fault here: Liszt for not managing the tonal palette more effectively; Scherbakov for the awkward sounding tempo fluctuations and overemphatic left hand. If in the final analysis the finale fails to convince, it is still illuminating.
The eighth, however, is wholly successful. Scherbakov enjoys the humour of this piece, pointing phrases and making much of the dynamic contrasts with some wonderfully delicate playing, and real gusto where called for. This performance has all the wit and verve that you could ask for and shows Beethoven at his most Haydnesque.
I had not heard any of Liszt’s Beethoven transcriptions before I received this CD for review. I was, however, quite familiar with Liszt’s transcription of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique as recorded by Idil Biret (Naxos 8.550725). As much as I enjoy that recording, it always sends me straight back to the orchestral version.
Scherbakov’s (and Liszt’s) great achievement here is that the performances on this disc are sufficient in their own right. In fact, it is refreshing to hear such familiar music apart from the orchestra. Suddenly performance aesthetics, the battle or compromise between the old big band style and period performance practice, cease to matter. With the different timbres and tones of the instrumental voices suddenly ironed out by the keyboard, each leading voice becomes something of a primus inter pares. As great works in their own right which shed new light on well known classics, these transcriptions are well worth hearing.
Having given such a glowing endorsement, I should acknowledge that Scherbakov faces competition in these pieces from Leslie Howard on Hyperion and Cyprien Katsaris on Teldec (see review). I have not heard either of these competing recordings. I can tell you, though, that if you love these symphonies then you will enjoy Scherbakov’s performances of these transcriptions. At the Naxos price, it is well worth hazarding the purchase…