About this Recording
8.571256 - BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphonies (arr. F. Liszt for piano), Vol. 2 (Biret) - Nos. 4, 5 (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 6)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 (transcribed by Franz Liszt)


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. Among particularly treasured possessions itemised in the will he made in 1860 were the death mask of Beethoven and his Broadwood piano which, after Liszt’s death, was presented by Princess Carolyne and her daughter, Princess Hohenlohe, to the National Museum in Budapest.

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. In his modest preface to the later published transcriptions he suggests that the poorest lithograph and the most incorrect translation may still give a vague idea of the genius of Michelangelo, of Shakespeare, and that the piano, with its increased range, could largely reproduce all features, all combinations, all figurations of the most thorough and profound musical creations, lacking only the very great advantages of variety of tone colours: his aim had been to perform the function of an intelligent engraver or a conscientious translator, able to understand the spirit of a work and to promote wider knowledge of the great masters.

The transcription of Symphony No. 4, with indications of the original instrumentation duly indicated in the score, starts with a slow introduction, allowing the possible use of tremolo, if needed, to represent the sustained woodwind notes of the opening. Recourse is had to arpeggiated chords in the left hand in the Allegro vivace, with modifications of lay-out to ensure the effect of the original. Technical demands increase in the slow movement, with its great intricacy of part-writing, after which the Allegro vivace, an undanceable Beethoven Menuetto, brings some respite. The last movement calls for the full dynamic range of the piano.

Liszt’s transcription of Symphony No. 5 again explores the full range of the keyboard, with instrumentation generally noted and use made of the sustaining pedal, with occasional octave transpositions, as necessary. The Andante con moto opens with crossed hands, the left hand taking the viola and cello melody and the right hand descending to take the pizzicato double bass notes at pitch. The movement brings some complexities that present a technical challenge to a performer. There is a general thinning of texture in the Scherzo, with the opening of the trio section taking the cello and double bass entry in octaves, with the additional instruction marcato assai. Tremolando and sustained use of the pedal marks the lead into the final Allegro, opening with full, arpeggiated chords, and proceeding to challenging piano-writing.

Keith Anderson



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

Close the window