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Weekend listening: Liszt piano transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies seeded by need to pay an artist

By John Terauds on May 19, 2012

The Beethoven monument, in Münsterplatz, Bonn.

So what, exactly, prompted Franz Liszt to transcribe Ludwig van Beethoven’s symphonies for the piano?

Alan Walker, Canadian Liszt expert and emeritus professor at McMaster Univerisity, suggested to the Miami International Piano Festival a few days ago that the seed came in a major financial commitment connected to Beethoven.

The unveiling of the Beethoven monument on Aug. 12, 1845.

The pianistic rock star had, in 1839, offered to pay for the bulk of a monument to honour Beethoven’ 75th anniversary, in 1845. The only way he could afford it would be to give as many concerts as he possibly could.

In the aftermath of giving 1,000 concerts and recitals over the next seven years, Liszt became intensely focused on how to render as many symphonic colours and textures as he could on the piano — an instrument that was still evolving at the time. Liszt’s teacher Carl Czerny had already created transcriptions of the nine symphonies. But Liszt wanted to do more than just present a general summary of the music for two hands.

Walker’s hour-long lecture is laced with interesting insights into Liszt’s life and work. About 22-1/2 minutes in, the lecturer sets up a series of recorded comparisons between Beethoven’s orchestrations and Liszt’s transcriptions (not paraphrases, which are fantasies based on the original material).

The talk was a prelude to a massive recital at Miami’s Colony Theatre tomorrow (the festival’s website is not very helpful, but you can check here).

The talk is a great way to spend an hour, taking in a bit of history, lore as well as music.

As a prelude, here is Glenn Gould giving us the opening movement of the Fifth:

John Terauds

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