Back in 1985 the distinguished Turkish pianist, Idil Biret, a student of Wilhelm Kempff and Alfred Cortot, recorded all of Liszt's piano transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies. As I recall they were issued in a big box, rather than as singles, and I never heard them back then. These days Biret is, apparently on her own label -- IBA, Idil Biret Archive -- releasing all her previous recordings of Beethoven's piano music, including all the sonatas and the concertos. Presumably, also, she will be releasing things like the Bagatelles and Variations and the like. This is the first of these CDs that I've heard, and I must say I'm impressed. Biret plays these tricky transcriptions with musicality, her eye always on the long line -- as in her gloriously songful performance of the Fifth's Andante con moto second movement -- and mostly avoids the almost inevitable pounding octaves inherent in Liszt's transcriptions, particularly in the Fifth. (One can only imagine what the first movement of the Seventh will sound like in that regard!) Fortunately the recorded sound is rather reverberant and this helps when a pianist is trying to sound like an entire orchestra.
I imagine, from having heard Cyprien Katsaris's recordings of all the Liszt transcriptions, that the most effective parts of Liszt's versions are the slower movements, the gentler movements as in, say, the Pastoral. This applies as well to the rather gentle Fourth Symphony which Biret plays to great effect. She manages the intricacies of the counterpoint in the slow movement with virtuosity that does not call attention to itself, the mark of a good musician. The same is true in the Fifth's third movement. Inevitably the Fifth's finale comes in for some rather hackneyed tremolos and octaves that make one wish the full orchestra were playing; Liszt, of course, was making these transcriptions at a time when most people had not heard all the symphonies in orchestral performance; his performances of them -- he originally made them for his own concert use; these are not suitable for amateur pianists by any means -- were often their only chance at exposure to Beethoven's symphonies. Thus, he had little choice but to use those tremolos and octaves, and one has to make allowances for that. Still, it is for this reason -- in these days of innumerable recordings of the orchestral originals -- that I've given this CD four stars rather than five. Considered from the perspective of the quality of the performances, though, Biret's playing would warrant five stars. And you probably can't beat the budget price if you're interested in having these transcriptions in your collection.