The renowned Turkish pianist Idil Biret is in the process of releasing recordings of Beethoven's complete piano sonatas, piano concertos and symphonies in the piano transcriptions of Franz Liszt. The sonatas and concertos were recently recorded. The recordings of the symphony transcriptions date from 1986 and are being released anew as part of this large project. The recordings are available at a budget price from the Idel Biret Archive, which aims to make all of Biret's many recordings publicly available, in collaboration with the Naxos label.
This recording of Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 in C, opus 21, and Symphony No. 2 in D, opus 36, was my first exposure to the Liszt transcriptions. Although I usually avoid both transcriptions and Liszt, I was impressed. Liszt loved Beethoven and expended a great deal of effort on these transcriptions. He began his transcriptions in 1838 and did not complete them until 1863, revising and redoing his earlier versions all the while. These transcriptions are a faithful rendering of the Beethoven symphonies for the piano. While they certainly are no substitute for Beethoven's scores, the transcriptions have value in their own right as piano compositions. In the years before radio and recordings, transcriptions were a common way of making music accessible. Transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies, especially for piano four-hands, allowed amateurs to attempt the symphonies. Liszt's transcriptions, however, are virtuosic in character. He wrote them for his own use and they are well beyond the reach of the amateur pianist.
Biret's playing of these works is a joy. She plays with clangor and power combined with grace and subtelty. Liszt aimed to capture the orchestra, but the transcriptions remain pianistic. This recording helped me hear Beethoven's symphonies afresh, which seems to me the value these transcriptions have for modern listeners.
I wanted to hear how the Larghetto, the second movement of the second symphony, would sound on the piano. During the 19th Century, this lovely movement was transcribed many times for different instruments. It is a lyrical, lacy movement with a long highly embroidered theme, which reaches its climax in a short melody, stated at the end of the exposition and recapitulation -- with a brief feint at a third repetition at the end of the movement. The great musicologist Donald Frances Tovey found that this movement captured the innocence of childhood. Biret plays this movement with a lovely legato touch and great dynamic range, especially in the development of the movement. The singing climactic theme is handled with great understatement. She offers a lovely reading of one of the finest moments in all the Beethoven symphonies.
The Symphony No. 2 was a pivotal work for Beethoven. It marked a decisive advance over the Symphony No. 1, as shown in these transcriptions. Biret captures the wonderfully protracted and tension-building slow introduction to the first movement, the wildness of the concluding section of the finale, and the unique Larghetto, discussed above. For most listeners, the Symphony No. 1 tends to be a more derivative, less imaginative work. But it features a rambunctious, highly characteristic scherzo (marked minuetto), polyphonic writing in the opening movement, and humor in the introductions to the opening movement and to the finale. These two early Beethoven symphonies may be more amenable to pianistic treatment than the latter works. But I am tempted to explore the remaining transcriptions further to hear for myself.
With the many versions of these symphonies on record, those listeners with limited experience with Beethoven would be well advised to concentrate their attention on the symphonies as Beethoven composed them rather than on transcriptions. Those listeners who know Beethoven well will gain new insights on the symphonies from these Liszt piano transcriptions and from the playing of Idil Biret.