When Franz Liszt published his solo piano transcriptions of the nine Beethoven symphonies in 1866, he paid tribute to the genius of the composer in his preface: "[t[he name of Beethoven is sacred in art. His symphonies are nowadays universally recognized as masterpieces. No one who seriously desires to extend his knowledge, or create something new himself, can ever devote sufficient thought to them, or ever study them enough." Liszt worked on the transcriptions from 1837, revising his efforts frequently. His primary purpose was to introduce Beethoven symphonies to new listeners in the days long before recordings or the radio. The Beethoven symphonies were not fully known and appreciated at the time of Liszt's transcriptions.
Although there have been a number of highly regarded recordings of the Liszt transcriptions by Katsaris, Scherbakov,and Howard, the first complete recording was by the Turkish pianist Idil Biret, a student of Boulanger, Kempff, and Corot, in 1986. Her EMI recording of the cycle was and remains a landmark, and it received glowing reviews upon release. The reviewer for Gramophone wrote: "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 the big line and yet is thankfully sparing in her use of fortissimos. The piano tone is sumptuous. Biret's gentle and almost sensual sonorities are really captivating. One is reminded that her mentor has been Wilhelm Kempff."
In 2009, Biret reissued here recording of the Liszt transcriptions on her own record label, the Idil Biret Archives, under the auspices of Naxos. The recordings are part of a much larger Beethoven project which consists as well of Biret's recordings of the 32 piano sonatas and of the five piano concertos. The piano transcriptions are available as part of a large box of 19 CDs which includes the entirety of Biret's Beethoven edition, in individal CDs, or, in the format I am reviewing here, in this 6-CD box set which includes the nine Beethoven symphonies in Liszt's transcriptions.
Liszt's genius for writing for the piano as if it were an orchestra served him well in this music. While the piano cannot capture the tone quality or the timbre of the instrucments of the orchestra or of the ensemble, his transcriptions are faithful to Beethoven's score and help bring out aspects of the music that even experienced listeners might miss. Biret's performances of these difficult scores are committed, thoughtful and effective. Much of the effect of these works on the piano depends on careful articulation (between legato, singing passages and stacatto passages), dynamic control and voicing. The many different lines of the orchestra, transcribed for the piano, must be captured by the pianist's two hands. Biret offers clear linear playing that brings out the heart of the compositions. Her tempos tend to be slow and deliberate and at times lack the forward propulsion possible in the original scores.
The best of these performances are of the even-numbered symphonies which tend to be Beethoven's more lyrical works and the slow movements and introductions. The sixth symphony, the Pastoral, receives an altogether glowing performance from Biret, with the recordings of the fourth (particularly the slow introduction to the opening movement and the slow movement) and eighth, and second symphonies not far behind. The funeral march of the Eroica symphony is movingly done as is the slow movement of the seventh. The slow movement of the ninth symphony is the highlight of Liszt's difficult transcription of this large-scale work.
The recordings of the Eroica and fifth symphonies are effective, if somewhat deliberately taken. And the Ninth Symphony with the large choral conclusion also is convincing on the whole. Liszt was dissatisfied with his transcription of the choral music of the final movement, finding the combination of orchestra and voice impossible to capture on the piano. I was still intruigued by his effort and by Biret's valiant performance. The seventh symphony I found less than effective, with its tempos and sharply angular rhythms not captured well on the piano. Biret's pioneering effort with these transcriptions has a heroic, landmark character; and the impact of the whole is greater than that of any individual part.
Liszt wrote these transcriptions as introductions to the Beethoven symphonies for listeners who might not otherwise have the opportunity to hear them. The audience for these works has changed over the years. They are more likely to appeal to listeners who know the Beethoven symphonies intimately and to lovers of Liszt and of piano music. Reading the Amazon reviews of other recordings of the other Beethoven/Liszt transcriptions shows that this music has acquired many musically knowledgeable devotees. Listeners wanting to deepen their perspective on the Beethoven symphonies through these piano transcriptions will enjoy this recording by Idil Biret. Attached for interested readers are links to the reviews of the individual CDs in this series.
Idil Biret Beethoven Edition 2: Symphonies, Vol. 1
Beethoven, L. Van: Symphonies (Arr. F. Liszt For Piano), Vol. 4 (Biret) - No. 3, "Eroica" (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 13)
Beethoven, L. Van: Symphonies (Arr. F. Liszt For Piano), Vol. 3 (Biret) - Nos. 7, 8 (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 9)
Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 6
Beethoven/Liszt: Symphonies Vols. 5 & 6