The Hungarian who kept Beethoven alive

The Hungarian who kept Beethoven alive


norman lebrecht

September 10, 2020

Welcome to the 114th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Liszt/Beethoven: The 9 symphonies

In the quarter-century after Beethoven’s death in 1827, only a small section of the public had access to his larger works. Orchestras were scarce and of uneven quality, while many concerts were exclusive, unavailable to the non-invited.

In this gathering oblivion, no-one did more to perpetuate Beethoven’s music and memory than the Hungarian pianist-composer Franz Liszt. Touring the length and breath of Europe from Russia to Ireland, Baltic to Balkans, Liszt performed in addition to his own music the transcriptions he made of works that he felt ought to be more widely known. While his piano ‘reminiscences’ of Italian opera hits were guaranteed crowd-pleasers, Liszt leavened his menu with Beethoven for the purpose of improving public taste.

Starting with truly imaginative and beautiful renditions for solo piano of the song ‘Adelaide’ and the early Septet, Liszt did not transcribe the Beethoven symphonies until he was past 50. He read the proofs before publication while staying in the Vatican, assisting at Mass as a sacristan while trying to sort out his marital problems. Beethoven was as much a refuge as faith to this troubled, trifurcated musician-priest who shuttled away his life between Weimar, Budapest and Rome, with occasional jaunts to Bayreuth.

Liszt’s piano reductions of the Beethoven symphonies are hardly ever given nowadays in a concert hall. His biographer Alan Walker writes: ‘They dispel the popular view of him as a showman, taking other composers’ works and turning them into a fireworks display for his own glorification. The act of self denial,.. suppressing his own creative impulses in the interests of Beethoven’s music, has few parallels.’

All of his symphonic transcriptions have been recorded. You may be surprised to see below which musical minds alighted on them.

1st Symphony

The French-Cypriot pianist Cyprien Katsaris recorded all nine symphonies in the 1980s and had them reissued by Warner in 2006. While the performances are of a high standard, the sound is less than ideal and there are few leaps of imagination in the interpretations. The first two symphonies give a good flavour of a decent series. Idil Biret’s 1985 Brussels performances are also marred by undistinguished sound. The 2020 production for Jean-Louis Haguenauer, a teacher at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, is clearer and brighter by far and his opening adagio is also the most expressive.

2nd symphony

Recorded at St Martin’s Church, East Woodhay, in Hampshire, this Naxos performance by the Russian-Swiss pianist Konstantin Scherbakov is wonderfully contemplative, as if he captured Beethoven in a matchbox and observes him for private delectation. The sound is exactly what you’d expect from an English country church and a professional recording team; these stadards are maintained throughout this cycle.

3rd symphony, Eroica

The veteran French virtuoso Georges Pludermacher enters the hustings with an interpretation that errs on the side of Napoleonic magniloquence, an approach that Beethoven himself reconsidered. Pludermacher’s funeral march is wonderfully sombre, the best part of this performance. For the whole symphony, I prefer the 2019 release by the Italian Gabriele Baldocci, an occasional partner of Martha Argerich. His is another evocative country-church recording, made at Chiese di Sant’Apollinare, Monticello di Lonigo.

4th symphony
The Frenchman Alain Planès, a former soloist with Pierre Boulez’s ensemble, adds a kind of pointillist modernism to Liszt’s scores, as if John Cage had rethought them for a prepared piano. He’s exceptionally listenable in the slow movements. Otherwise, Katsaris and Biret will do.

5th symphony

Hold on to your hat. This is Glenn Gould playing Beethoven’s fifth symphony on a piano whoch, while in tune, had possibly seen better days. You will soon overcome that reservation because this is one of the most gripping readings of the symphony to be found anywhere, whether full orchestra or solo piano. Gould’s recapitulation of the opening theme alone ought to be taught in every conducting course on earth.

And if that’s not surprise enough, here is one of the great musical minds of Vienna, the period-piano expert Paul Badura-Skoda, giving the symphony the benefit of his immense knowledge of Beethovenian timbre. Wonderfully light in the upper register, Badura-Skoda finds colours that no-one else suspects – albeit without creating the rounded interpretation that Gould so monumentally delivers.

6th symphony, Pastoral
Glenn Gould again – the perfect companion in the first movement and an absolute terror in the storm. One of the great Pastorals, by a country mile.

I also love the bucolic atomosphere conjured by Ashley Wass on an original 1820s fortepiano in an English country house; it’s a distinctive sound, just perfect for this piece. You might  like to sample the Frenchman Michel Dalberto, a lovely storyteller on a very recent Harmonia Mundi compilation of the complete Liszt/Beethoven transcriptions.

7th symphony

You are about the hear the most phenomenal pair of hands I ever had the good fortune to encounter. Ronald Smith was an Englishman  in pebble glasses who played the most difficult pieces of Busoni and was solely responsible for the revival of the near-unplayable Alkan, the only 19th century pianist who put Liszt in the shade. Ronald, whom I got to know through his Alkan endeavours, was going blind and consigned a huge amount of music to memory. What we hear in his account of the Liszt/Beethoven 7th is a pianist as gifted as Liszt making sense of a composer as great as Beethoven. I don’t think I breathed at all during the second movement.

By way of context, listen to Jean-Claude Pennetier and Michel Dalberto play a four-hand version, which appears to contain fewer notes than Ronald Smith manages with two hands.

8th symphony
The Russian Yury Martynov, a teacher at the Tchaikovsky conservatoire in Moscow, recorded the cycle in Setember 2013 at the Doopsgezinde Gemeente Church in Haarlem, in the Netherlands. Using a mid-19th century concert grand, he conjures more of Liszt than he does of Beethoven. The modest eight symphony responds particularly well to this more showy approach.

9th symphony
It’s unrealistic to imagine that the Ninth can be shrunk to living room size and none of the interpretations available is entirely successful. I am drawn to a lyrical 2009 reading by the Italian Maurizio Baglini, at times so leisurely it almost comes to a halt. Katsaris, Biret and Scherbakov are also fine, but I am most convinced in this symphony by the 2008 four-hand version played by Leon McCawley and Ashley Wass, two young men in a hurry.

Just as Liszt was when he wrote these nine transcriptions.




  • Greg Bottini says:

    I have the Katsaris set of the nine and am well satisfied with them. I don’t find the recorded sound a drawback in the least.
    I have heard Biret, R. Smith, and Scherbakov; they are also good.
    But Gould is really special. His recording of the fifth and sixth symphonies are simply superb.
    It makes one wonder why his recordings of some of the sonatas aren’t as satisfying!

    • Peter San Diego says:

      I have read that Gould’s seating position at the piano made it impossible for him to play some of the octave passages in the 5th transcription in real time, so he had to resort to overdubbing. Of course, that was consistent with his aesthetic of studio manipulation to create the desired ideal performance.

  • Russell says:

    Indiana University, please, not University of Indiana.

  • fflambeau says:

    I prefer the Paul Badura Skoda (especially his 5th) Lizt piano transcription to Gould’s (who sounds like he is playing Bach).

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    If Franz Liszt did not strongly identify himself as Hungarian he would probably be known as an Austrian composer today. He was only Hungarian to the extent that Gustav Mahler was Czech. Lucky for Hungarians.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      So should someone’s self-identification count for nought? Liszt not only identified himself as Hungarian, but spent much time in providing support to Hungarian society and art, in a way that Mahler (to take your example) never did for Bohemia (unless I’m mistaken, in which case I’ll gladly accept correction). Also, in his day, German was spoken at least as commonly by residents of Ofen and Pest as Hungarian…

  • Dave T says:

    May I suggest a contemporary transcription: it’s “Indiana University” not the other way around. This is a common error.

  • Garech de Brun says:

    When Liszt toured Ireland he seems to have encountered bad luck. In Clonmel, where Liszt, who had travelled on bad roads through a cold night from Cork, discovered that the concert had been forgotten altogether. The pianist insisted, though, that the entire programme be given in his hotel sitting room. An audience of only 25 was gathered and they heard the small upright piano rattle and shake under the weight of his forceful playing. `’Twas like a private matinee”, wrote Parry his companion in his diary. Of the frail piano, he wrote that it was “funny to see Liszt firing away . . . on this little instrument, but it stood his powerful hand capitally”.

    The tour took a strange route. From Dublin, Liszt and his band of intrepid followers had gone to Cork and then to Clonmel. Limerick was next, though instead of going there directly, the party first returned to Dublin. In keeping with the atmosphere of all-round misfortune, the night-time journey to the capital was hampered by a blizzard. His biographer Walker writes that Liszt sat outside the crowded coach in the driving snow and resembled a snowman on arrival.

    Meanwhile, the Limerick Standard had reported that a “Grand Concert” by “M. List” would take place on December 29th. Eleven days late, Liszt finally appeared at seven on the morning of January 9th – the concert took place that very lunch-time. “A poor, dirty place”, Parry wrote. “There were about 100 people present, not more. These were almost more than had been expected, for the concert had been much postponed.” Liszt was encored once. “He must have been off-form – which was hardly a shock – for Parry, who played the harp as an opening act, was encored twice.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Great story.

    • Edgar Self says:

      A vivid account of Liszt’s tour of Ireland, Garech, many thanks. What years were they, please? And was Liszt’s harpist companion Parry, presumably Iriish, related to Sir Hubert Parry, the oratoriocomposer and teacher of the phenominal Sir Donald Francis tovey, the “Slithey Tove”? Tovey also was a brilliant writer who must have had a drop of Celtic blood.

      Obiter dicta: Liszt did not even speak Hungarian. But, the Abbe Liszt buried in a Protestant cemetery,like Keats outside Rome? aAfter inconveniently expiring of dropsy and a daily flagon of brandy during the Festival of 1876, adding to Cosima’s cares … he was her father, after all … he is now interred on the Villa Wahnfried grounds, near the graves of Wagner, Cosima … and their dogs. I visited it during the 1954 festival.

      • Garech de Brun says:

        No Parry was not related to Sir Hubert. His Irish tour was in winter between 1840-1. On one occasion he played in the Rotunda, Dublin. My ancestor being Master of the lying-in hospital.

        He asked the audience to write down some tunes to improvise on. My ancestor asked him to improvise on Lord Inchiquin.

      • Garech de Brun says:

        John Orlando Parry was, the only son of Welsh musician John Parry (known as Bardd Alaw), was born in London and, at an early age, was taught by his father to sing and to play the harp and the piano. He also studied the harp under Robert Bochsa. As Master Parry, in May 1825, he appeared as a performer on the harp.

        As a baritone vocalist he made his début on 7 May 1830 at the Hanover Square Rooms, in London, on the occasion of Franz Cramer’s concert, when he sang Handel’s Arm, arm, ye brave! with much success.

        He accompanied Liszt on the UK-Ireland tour (1840-41) and in some cases hugged the limelight with his harp playing.

      • Greg Bottini says:

        Cosima treated Liszt like dirt at Wahnfried, Edgar.
        You must read Alan Walker’s “The Death of Franz Liszt: Based on the Unpublished Diary of his Pupil Lina Schmalhausen” for the full story.
        Walker’s 3-volume biography is a must-read as well. I met this lovely, gentle scholar at a convention of the American Liszt Society some yers back.

        • Edgar Self says:

          Liszt wrote a postcard in summer 1886 to Lina Schmalhausen arranging to meet her in Bayreuth for the festival that he was not to survive. this card is displayed in Thomas Zoell’s Pianoforte Chicago showrooms on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Zoells is retired Swiss private banker and a nephew of Jacques Leiser, London concert agent and manager.

          His other treasures are two tickets signed by Carl Maria von Weber for the world premiere of his last opera, “Oberon”, in English in London;which Weber conducted, and a letter from Svyatoslav Richter.

  • Crotchet says:

    Liszt seems to be remembered mainly as a performer and for his arrangements of the music of others. As a composer he assimilated the styles of others without having a style of his own. I know some say his late stuff influenced Bartok, Debussy etc.

    There will always be a bit of a charlatan about him like Paganini. When he died Cosima had him buried in the Alte Friedhof (Protestant cemetery) in Bayreuth, against his wishes.

    • Novagerio says:

      Crotchet: I would suggest you did a hard hearing on his piano music and his Symphonic Poems, a genre he basically invented (propably inspired by Berlioz’s virtuosic and expressive virtuosism of orchestration).
      Believe me, there’s more into it than just Hungarian folklorism. And his Faust and Dante Symphonies are amazing (you’ll even hear a motive from Wagner’s Die Walküre at the very start of the Faust Symphony – composed before Die Walküre).
      And yes, Liszt’s influence was indispensable to composers as varied as Scriabin, Richard Strauss, Debussy and Bartók.

      P.S: To call Paganini a “charlatan” is quiet a stretch. Virtuosos wrote always for themselves and – for better or worse, exploited the possibilities of their instruments. But Old Nicolò didn’t just wrote pyrotechnics; his more lyrical music for violin and guitar (he played both instruments equally well) have the charm and sweetness of rossinian Belcanto.
      What cynics today might never understand is that Paganini and Liszt were the “rock stars” of the 19th century.

    • Y2K says:

      Crotchet, “without having a style of his own” is quite ill-informed. My favorite Liszt are works from his late period. I have been studying works like Bagatelle without Tonality, La Lugubre Gondola I/II, Nuage Gris, RW Venezia, Unstern Sinistre, Via Crucis, etc for decades. These are some of the most profound, unique, personal, influential, visionary works ever composed. They are so identifiably Liszt.

    • Percy says:

      I get the impression that Liszt was really a pastiche cut and paste job. How he managed holy Orders living in sin is a puzzle, but then the Catholic church has never really practised what it preaches behind closed doors.

      Having heard his B minor sonata many times, he seems to have caught the repetition bug badly. Granted it has some occasional moments, but it also has some boring repetition. All that rapture can become monotonous

      • John Borstlap says:

        Why on earth would people without ears try to listen many times to Liszt’s B minor sonata? It’s not for them.

    • Eric says:

      He most certainly did have a style of his own. His music is clearly recognisable and some of it, like the b minor piano sonata, is fabulous.

  • Daniel Poulin says:

    Glenn Gould had planned to record all nine Symphonies but changed his mind after the Pastoral. The Second Movement of the Seventh on YouTube is wrongly advertised as a Gould performance. It is actually from a Jean-Claude Pennetier recording, an excellent one. Also, there is a very fine recording of the Eroica by Roger Woodward, an Australian pianist, dating back to 1977, on RCA (Vinyl).

  • Garech de Brun says:

    How does Carl Czerny’s transcription of Beethoven’s symphonies compare with Liszt’s? Listen to his Beethoven 5.

  • Davyd Booth says:

    Norman what a fabulous informative post. I agree totally about Gould. Really fantastic playing. Bravo

  • John Borstlap says:

    Liszt was a great man, as a person and as an artist, on the basis of his best achievements – which is only fair.

    His generosity towards other musicians – young pianists, and composers old, young and deceased – is unique in music history where the general motto has always been ‘I for myself and God for all of us’.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Good comments all, entertaining and informative. The Beethoven transcriptions from various hands, and piano duet arrangements of Haydn symphonies served students and melomanes well until recordings and a growing number of orchestras and public performances caught up. Imagine, before that you couldn’t hope to hear them even a few times, if at all, in a lifetime. Score-readers were more fortunate.

  • Turlough O'Carolan says:

    Liszt was not really “Hungarian”. For a start he could not speak the language and he made the mistake of equating Gypsy music with Hungarian folk. I think he was a bit of a bandwagon composer.

    • karajanman says:

      Please see the comments by Novagerio and Y2K amongst others to balance your “bandwagon composer” comment. Better still, investigate the the large symphonic works, the Années de Pèlerinage or recordings of the late piano works by artists like Alfred Brendel or Claudio Arrau. If they don’t prove that Liszt is a great composer then you have cloth ears.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Liszt was first and foremost an international European composer, with a mixed cultural identity.

      He was uninformed about the Hungarian traditional folk music like everybody else in Europe living in the cities. That music was a thing of the countryside and it was only with Bartok and Kodaly that it began to be explored – in the period when it also began to disappear, due to increasing urbanisation.

  • zeno north says:

    I’m surprised to see no mention of Leslie Howard here or did I read to quickly. He’s no slouch in these pieces.

    • Y2K says:

      Indeed. I love Howard’s 6th and 7th.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      I agree. Howard should at least receive mention for his superhuman effort in performing all of Liszt’s piano works (and rediscovering several of them from the archives), and his leadership of the Liszt Society, even if his performances are not always first recommendations. (I find his rendition of the transcription of the 4th to be wholly convincing.)

    • Paganono says:

      I’m equally surprised! Leslie Howard’s super human achievement of recording all of Liszt’s piano music on 104 CD’s within only 14 years will never be equalled. In the history of pianism, he is incomparable.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Garech de Brun — Many thanks for your information on harpie Parry and Franz Liszt’s Irish tour. they must have been about the same age.

    An ancestor at the lying-in hospital in Dublin, yet De Brun is surely not an Irish name? French Huguenot? The routed Armada through the uncharted irish Sea?

    • Garech de Brun says:

      Garech de Brún, is a nom de plume!

      He was the eldest of the three sons of the 4th Baron Oranmore and Browne and his second wife, Oonagh, daughter of The Hon. Arthur Ernest Guinness, the second son of The 1st Earl of Iveagh.

      He was a great supporter of Irish music and co-founder of Claddagh records.

  • esfir ross says:

    Frederic Chiu plays Beethoven Symphonies very good. I heard in his recital #5

  • Max Raimi says:

    In my distant schoolboy past, I played “Harold in Italy” for the Juilliard concerto competition. At the competition we played with piano, not surprisingly, and there exists a Liszt transcription of the orchestra part. My pianist was a budding 27-fingered Juilliard virtuoso right out of central casting, and it was downright embarrassing in rehearsal. He would thunder through Liszt’s glorious pianistic take on Berlioz’s brilliant orchestral writing, pausing now and then as I would play the viola passages, which were distinctly less taxing. I didn’t win, but was relieved to represent myself pretty well.

    • Edgar Self says:

      Max Raimi, do you remember the name of your budding Juilliard virtuoso and what became of him? I’ve seen Zukerman play Harold in Italy with the CSO I rhink, and always liked him better on viola. Were there interested colleagues in the section?

      • Max Raimi says:

        Sorry; I’m drawing a blank on his name, which is embarrassing, because we were pretty good friends back then and even played basketball late at night on the courts behind his apartment building at 70th and Columbus. He was a Minnesotan with a Scandinavian name. Damn..I’m going senile! I know that he ended up teaching at a small college in the Pacific Northwest. I couldn’t agree with you more about Zuckerman. I love his viola sound; his command of the instrument is unsurpassed.

      • Greg Bottini says:

        Could it be Grant Johannesen?

  • Alexander T says:

    Yes, the Gould recording of the fifth is indeed gripping and one of the best renditions of the symphony.
    I bought the LP over thirty years ago and still find the performance as compelling now as I did the first time I heard it.
    One his greatest performances.
    A great artist who left us way too soon.

  • Dan oren says:

    Recently Heard the freshly named French « ministre de la culture » speaking of the music of Litss…..

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      The current “Ministre de la culture”, Roselyne Bachelot, is a woman of her time. The French seem to have forgotten all about their former pretension to have a high culture. I cite from the introduction to Alain Finkieukraut’s ‘La défaut de la pensée’ (still his best book, I think):

      ‘Malaise dans la culture. Certes, nul désormais ne sort son revolver quand il entend ce mot. Mais ils sont de plus en plus nombreux ceux qui, lorsqu’ils entendent le mot “pensée”, sortent leur culture.’

      • Dan oren says:

        Mind you,She is considered as a mélomane (music lover) and opera connoisseur….she even supposedly wrote a book about Verdi’s operas(although I doubt she did it herself) and hosted a radio show (pathetic)..this is where I heard France Litsss and Josef Ayinnnn

  • Edgar Self says:

    Perhaps she was thinking of Wagons-Lits.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Greg Bottini, we’re agreed on Alan walker’s book aout Liszt’s death. I’ve left a reply to your post about Lina Schmanlhausen and the postcard List wrote her arranging to meet in Bayreuth for the 1886 festival, where he died and was hastily buried. The story of liszt’s final visit and farewell to Wagner in Venice, the occasion for the lugubrious gondola you like and another piece, comes to mine,and Humperdinck’s delivery to Wagmer pf his concert ending to “Siegfried’s Rhein Journey” and Wagner’s recovery of the parts and score of his early four-movement symphony.