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Pierre's Tuesday Blog

Beethoven/Liszt: Symphonies nos. 4 & 5

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For this month’s contribution to our #Beethoven2020 series, as promised last month, we continue with some piano works, but with a twist…

You will hear all of Beethoven’s nine symphonies several times over in the course of this anniversary year – including symphonies 1 and 3 so far in this series. Beethoven himself subtly introduced symphony number 2 into the series a few months ago as a transcription for piano trio. In the course of the next two installments, we will focus on the middle third of the corpus – symphonies 4, 5 and 6, but in a format less heard but I promise, just as enjoyable.

Beethoven was a formidable pianist in his day, so it should not be too surprising that his symphonies have a very “pianistic” character. Piano and Forte passages are rendered by different sections of the orchestra (brilliantly, you will agree) but subtle, sometimes lyrical passages remind us of Beethoven sitting at his piano, playing around with note combinations. There are certainly many study scores and piano reductions of these symphonies intended for orchestral preparation, but there exists only one set of transcriptions that fully exploit the full measure of the piano as a worthy platform to render these symphonies, and they are from another legendary pianist and composer – Franz Liszt.

Liszt was paid 8 francs per page by Breitkopf & Härtel, who first requested two symphonies to be transcribed. By 1837, Liszt appears to have completed the transcriptions of the fifth, sixth and seventh symphonies, of which the fifth and sixth were published by Breitkopf & Härtel. During his 1840 travels in Europe he might have given the transcribed symphonies some publicity by playing them at his concerts.

With three symphonies transcribed, Liszt set aside the work for another 23 years. It was not until 1863 that Breitkopf & Härtel suggested to Liszt that he transcribe the complete set for a future publication. He would note down the names of the orchestral instruments for the pianist to imitate, he would also add pedal marks and fingerings for amateurs and sight readers. The full set of transcriptions were finally published in 1865 and dedicated to Hans von Bülow. The original publication of the fifth and sixth symphonies had been dedicated to the painter and amateur violinist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

The transcriptions are among the greatest, and most technically demanding in the pianistic repertoire, however the Liszt Beethoven Symphony transcriptions are little known outside serious musical circles, and were in relative obscurity for over 100 years after their publication. It remains a mystery why none of Liszt's pupils performed or recorded these works. The first recording of any of them was not until 1967, when Glenn Gould recorded the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. İdil Biret became the first pianist to record the complete cycle, between July 1985 and April 1986. Subsequently, Cyprien Katsaris, Leslie Howard, Konstantin Scherbakov and Yury Martynov have also recorded all nine.

This week, I am sharing the fourth and fifth symphony transcriptions, as performed by French-Cypriot pianist Cyprien Katsaris. His complete set was reissued by Warner Classics in 2006 and available in their entirety on YouTube (see my link further down).

Happy listening!

Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Piano transcriptions of Beethoven Symphonies, S. 464

Symphony No.4 in B Flat Major Op.60 [S.464/4]
Symphony No.5 in C Minor Op.67 [S.464/5]

Piano – Cyprien Katsaris

Teldec Classics ‎– 2564 60865-2 (CD #3 of 6)
Release: 1990

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Internet Archive (CD #3 only) -
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Classical Music , Musicians