What Liszt and Schumann got from Beethovenmain
Franz Liszt/Ludwig van Beethoven: Fantasia for Piano and Orchestra on motifs from Beethoven’s ‘The Ruins of Athens’
We have seen what Liszt did for Beethoven. We know, too, of Liszt’s role as a catalyst between the age of Beethoven and that of Richard Wagner. Liszt, who became Wagner’s most loyal supporter and eventually his father-in-law, often played Beethoven sonatas for Wagner, on one occasion, reducing him to tears in the slow movement of the Hammerklavier sonata.
Liszt carried much of Beethoven’s in his head, borrowing a theme here or there in his own scores. The most famous of his borrowings is the incidental music that Beethoven wrote for an 1811 play, The Ruins of Athens. Liszt decided that what Beethoven’s orchestral score needed was a prominent part. The result is a cataclysmic horror show, the sort of thing a stand-up comic like Dudley Moore would write as a parody of Beethoven or Liszt, or both of them together.
Liszt published his tribute in three versions – for solo piano, two pianos and piano and orchestra – all of them dedicated to the Russian pianist and composer Nikolai Rubinstein, who was his arch-rival at the time. In the version with orchestra, Liszt keeps the piano under wraps for a long stretch, before blowing in the soloist with a storm, soon followed by Beethoven’s Dervish Chorus and his overworked Turkish March. It’s fun and frisky and possibly self-mocking.
There are several recorded versions of varying degrees of seriousness, the earliest of which dates from September 1938 with the pianist Egon Petri and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Leslie Heward, who was music director of the City of Birmingham Orchestra. It’s a buttoned-up strait-laced performance and all the better for that. Petri was an emigre Dutchman with Liszt-like hands who was much in demand for the most difficult and prestidigitatious works. His playing of this piece is practically unsurpassed.
A Russian recording by the USSR State Radio and TV Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alexander Gauk is interesting for the opportunity it afford to hear the pianist Grigory Ginzburg (1904-61), a Liszt specialist who was hardly ever allowed let out to perform abroad. It may be my fantasy, but I find an authenticity in his approach which stretches back to Rubinstein and Liszt himself. The sound is Soviet bog-standard, barely listenable in parts.
Of the remaining recordings, Kurt Masur has outstanding orchestral sound with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig in 1991 and Michel Béroff as soloist, but takes the whole thing too seriously.
One other Liszt tribute to Beethoven we need to consider is his
Inauguration cantata for the Beethoven Monument in Bonn
The words warn you to expect a sententious, sancimonous exhortation at an occasion attended by the crowned heads of Europe, and the music lives down in every section to our lowest expectation:
Holy! Holy! Holy
is the genius’s sway on earth.
He lent us a foretaste of heaven,
immortality’s surest pledge.
This celebration has united us!
Set foot within the circle;
let us devote these varied hours
to his memory...
There are moments – the start of the third movement, for instance – when Liszt displays his mastery of orchestral invention but barely has he drawn us into a theme that he sets a soloist loose on a tangent that has nothing to do with the musical context.The finale, marked ‘andante religioso’, smells of incense and baked beans.
There appears only ever to have been one recording: by Bruno Weil in 2020 with the Cappella Coloniensis, Kölner Kantorei and soloists Diana Damrau, Jörg Dürmüller and Georg Zeppenfeld. Listen to it here. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
On a more reasonable note, Liszt’s transcription for piano solo of Beethoven’s love song ‘Adelaide’ is pure pleasure. Egon Petri gives a reminder that muscular pianists can also be microsurgeons, while Garrick Ohlsson in far superior sound suggests at hidden affinities between Beethoven, Liszt and Schubert. It’s ten minutes well wasted.
Robert Schumann: Studies in the Form of Free Variations on a Theme of Beethoven
In 1830, the profoundly insecure 20 year-old Schumann was writing piano studies on Beethoven themes that would never be played or published in his lifetime. This singular set is built around the second movement of the 7th symphony and is riveting for the way we hear Schumann learning point by point from the master which angles to use in developing a theme. At around eleven minutes you will hear an echo of the opening of the 9th symphony and wonder what it’s doing there.
The Etudes are rarely progarammed in recital halls. The most compelling available performance on record is by the London-based Hungarian pianist Peter Frankl, a scintillating retracing of Schumann’s rising excitement as he discovers the means that Beethoven puts at the disposal of future composers. I have never heard this set performed live and it’s now near the top of my wish-list. Frankl, who is 85 next month, still gives an occasional recital.