These are the liner notes to the Centaur Records release of Beethoven/Liszt Symphonies V/VII, performed by Frederic Chiu, produced by Judith Sherman, multiple Grammy award-winning Producer of the Year.
The piano is one of the seminal inventions in human history, a platform for creativity and thinking that has endured more than 300 years. Continually evolving and refining with the advent of different technologies, the instrument is alive and well. Why?
The works on this recording are rich responses to that question. They demonstrate how the piano is at once simple and complex, how its palette is restricted and yet infinitely variegated within those restrictions, and how the act of playing or even listening to the piano is a deeply human activity that we rarely get to explore in other ways.
Franz Liszt understood these concepts, and he felt so inspired by them, he spent close to 2 years in a retreat at a monastery, devoting himself exclusively to arranging all 9 Symphonies of Beethoven for solo piano. His work left a legacy that has never been equaled in music history, creating something as close to an actual recording of Beethoven as one could wish for without the technology being available.
Liszt’s familiarity specifically with the Seventh and Fifth Symphonies stems from many perspectives. Besides his personal encounter with Beethoven the man (Beethoven’s apocryphal “kiss” on Liszt the child’s forehead), he was present in the audience for important live performances of the Symphonies by Beethoven’s collaborators and contemporaries, hearing performance practices that came straight from Beethoven’s direction.
Liszt’s perspective as a composer pushed him to study Beethoven’s craft as a model for his own compositions. And being a performer himself, he also could deeply appreciate the pianistic and executional details needed to transmit the musical thoughts to an audience. (In fact, many of Liszt’s audiences were hearing these two Beethoven Symphonies for the first time, played not by an orchestra but rather in these piano transcriptions performed by Liszt!)
Finally, as a court conductor in Weimar, he had the opportunity to deconstruct and perform these works with an orchestra. Liszt’s piano scores must therefore be taken as a sort of gospel in regards to Beethoven’s intentions with the Symphonies.
Listening to this recording offers discoveries and new perspectives on many levels. The sound differences, of course, between a piano and an orchestra cause details to leap out and others to retract. The narrower color palette of the piano creates a sort of x-ray of the original, a black and white (pun intended) etching of a full-color painting. Details of structure and form, of line and counterpoint will be more defined. Listening to an orchestral performance will never be the same after listening to Liszt’s piano version.
Certain performance details from the piano score, including dynamic markings and articulation markings, offering variants from the symphonic score. Some of these might reflect what Liszt was hearing at the time in contemporaneous performances. Others might reflect a direction of interpretation more easily explored by an individual vs. a large group, but which are also inspired by contemporaneous interpretations.
One particular detail is worth spotlighting – the execution of the grace note in the famous melody of the Allegretto movement of Symphony VII. Among conductors, one camp presents the grace notes ON the beat, while another, much smaller camp argues for them to enter BEFORE the beat. In Liszt’s piano score, where all the instrumental parts are presented together on the same staff, it is clearly set so the grace notes play BEFORE the beat. As added emphasis, Liszt’s own fingerings of this passage could not be executed ON the beat, only BEFORE the beat. Given Liszt’s familiarity with the score and with performance practices of the time, this seems to give the smaller camp an almost infallible argument in their favor!
In social history, one often sees the trade-off of complexity for convenience. In the case of the piano, the convenience of being able to play the instrument easily – without requiring much physical conditioning or precision in pitch – allows the performer to play more than one note at the same time, with absolute independence of each of those notes. With this variety and independence of voices, the piano can suggest the wide palette of colors of an orchestra, and the multiple, independent streams of activity of many individuals playing simultaneously.
However, instead of marveling at the confluence of many streams into a single “performance” demonstrated by an orchestral performance (“All for one”), the listener can marvel at the ability of a single person to diversify into various seemingly independent actors, in real time (“One for all”). Both acts are inherently, deeply human, affirming our basic capacities to work both together and alone. Very few activities besides playing and listening to the piano give a single person this ability to multi-task, and this alone could guarantee its survival for many centuries to come.
Frederic Chiu 4/1/2019