03 Beethoven LisztBeethoven – Complete Symphonies transcribed for piano by Franz Liszt
Michel Dalberto, Jean-Claude Pennetier, Alain Planès; Paul Badura-Skoda
Harmonia Mundi HMX2931192.98 (harmoniamundi.com/#!/albums/2643)

For over 25 years, Franz Liszt undertook the task of transcribing Beethoven’s symphonies for the piano, not merely transferring the notes from one instrument to another but reworking and recomposing these great works entirely. The material is unchanged – Beethoven’s melodic and harmonic content remain intact – but the approach is different, as necessitated by the reduction of 20-or-so instrumental parts down to two hands.

It is important to consider that when Liszt made these transcriptions the concept of the symphony orchestra was not nearly as ubiquitous as it is today, and there was no recording technology available to capture these incredible works for posterity; a performance was a one-time event, in the truest sense of the idea. If people wanted to listen to Beethoven in their living rooms, they had to do the work themselves, playing the notes live on their own pianos. By making these transcriptions, Liszt was enabling pianists everywhere to hear this great composer’s symphonies as often as they were willing to play them, while hopefully garnering himself a reasonable sum in royalties.

To those of us in the 21st century for whom accessing any one of the 10,000 recordings of Beethoven’s symphonies is as easy as pushing play, can these pianistic oddities have any relevance? Strangely, yes – but not in the straightforward way we might think. Liszt’s transcriptions have the effect of taking the immensity of the orchestra and distilling it into a chamber-sized sound, akin to a piano sonata rather than a symphony. Listening to pianist Paul Badura-Skoda tackle the legendary Fifth Symphony, for example, one is struck by how much his interpretation resembles a long-lost cousin to the Pathétique.

While this recording may be more of a novelty item than a standard must-have collectible, those who are familiar with Beethoven’s symphonic essays will appreciate hearing them in a different way, from the inside out, perhaps, rather than the outside in.

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