In 1986, Idil Biret made a celebrated recording of Liszt's transcriptions for solo piano of the nine Beethoven symphonies. She reissued her cycle of the Beethoven/Liszt transcriptions in 2009 on her own label, the Idil Biret Archive, under the auspices of Naxos, the company for which she has recorded for many years. This 2-CD set, the final volume of her Liszt transcriptions, includes two beloved symphonies, No. 6 in F major, Op. 68, the Pastoral, and No. 9 in d minor, opus 125, the Choral. She offers some of her best performances and a fitting conclusion to the cycle. Biret plays these works in a slow deliberate tempo. The Pastoral Symphony takes over 50 minutes to perform and takes up most of the first CD. The opening movement of the Ninth concludes the first CD while the remaining three movements occupy the second CD.
The quiet lyricism and the tone color of the Pastoral Symphony make it the most effective of Liszt's transcriptions, and Biret gives the work her best performace. She plays the work throughout with attention to the flowing lines and to the serene feeling of the score and makes the listener feel the piece was originally composed for the piano. Biret plays the opening allegro non troppo at a deliberate tempo with a feeling of peace and elevation. The second movement, andante con moto, flows, with a quiet lyricism punctuated by the rippling brook and by the twittering of birds in the upper register of the piano. The third movement which captures a gathering of the villagers has jollity in Biret's hands together with a foot-stomping section in the trio. The storm scene in the symphony works brilliantly on the piano with deep tremolos in the left hand and sharp rising glissandos in the right. Biret returns to serenity and peace in the extended quietly dancelike finale. Biret offers an altogether moving piano reading of the Pastoral Symphony.
With its length, complexity, multiple voices, and choral finale, the piano transcription of the Ninth Symphony was a daunting task. Liszt was not entirely pleased with the result. As a result of his efforts, Liszt "became convinced of the impossibility of making a pianoforte arrangement of [it] that could in any way be ... satisfactory". Liszt was a master of writing for the piano as if the instrument were an orchestra, but in the case of the Ninth, the transcription had to capture a large chorus, soloists, and a vocal quartet as well. Biret offers a large-scaled reading of Liszt's difficult virtuoso score that on the whole manages to convince.
The first three movements of the Ninth consist of orchestral music on a grand scale. Biret, and Liszt, capture the size of the opening movement with its majesty and sense of dramatic foreboding. The transcription begins with dramatic, low register tremolos which Biret sound expands into large passages of angry fortissimos. Biret makes use of large dynamic changes, flexible tempos, differentiation of the musical lines, and counterpoint to capture the foreboding character of the opening movement.
The scherzo is taken at a deliberate pace. Biret captures the different orchestral effects of the movement, including the repeated, sometimes delayed entrances of the tympani, and the bouncing figures for the bassoon. There are moments of peace in the trio.
The submlime third movement lies beautifully on the piano and, under Biret's hands, is the highlight of this transcription. She takes the movement slowly and simply. The piano writing often is spare. The movement has a feeling of peace and tranquillity, as the movement seems to involve a single flowing line and a unitary texture. With the increase in tempo towards the end of the movement, the work reaches a triumphal conclusion.
Liszt did what he could in transcribing the finale. The opening orchestral sections, with their recollection of the three earlier movements work well, as does the introduction of the "Ode to Joy". Biret's pianissimo rendition of the theme captures the orchestral rendition on the cello. In the choral sections, Liszt concentrates his attention almost exclusively on the vocal lines which give the pianist more than enough to do. The arrangement works best when Liszt writes for solo vocal lines, such as the introduction of the theme in the bass and the subsequent solo for the tenor. There is passion, force, and contrast in the large choral sections, but there is no question that this is a reduction of a massive and complex orchestral score. The fugal section late in the movement comes out with clarity and power in Biret's performance. Biret offers a virtuoso and committed reading of a work which, as Liszt admitted, resists transcription to the piano.
Listeners who love Beethoven's symphonies and who are willing to explore transcriptions will enjoy hearing this recording. These listeners will be rewarded by a lovely rendition of the Pastoral Symphony, by a meditative and idiomatic third movement of the Ninth, and by a challenging virtuoso rendition of the remainder of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in these landmark performances by Idil Biret.
Total Time: 2:14:40