May 29, 2008


Liszt: Two-Piano Transcription of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Leon McCawley and Ashley Wass, pianos. Naxos. $8.99.

Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 6. Danish National Symphony Orchestra/DR conducted by Michael Schønwandt. Naxos. $8.99.

      Liszt’s solo-piano transcriptions of the nine Beethoven symphonies were a milestone in piano literature and in the resurgence of interest in Beethoven’s music, which Liszt tremendously admired. The transcription of the Ninth gave Liszt the most trouble, because he was so hesitant to reduce the choral passages of the finale to the notes playable on a single piano. It was only in 1865, three decades after starting his project of transcribing the Beethoven symphonies for piano solo, that Liszt finally finished that of the Ninth. In the interim, though, he had done a transcription of this symphony for two pianos, in 1851 – and that version has some interesting divergences from the single-piano version and some advantages over it. When played as well as Leon McCawley and Ashley Wass play it, the two-piano version has a fullness, an exploration of tonalities and rhythms, that the single-piano version never quite attains. Yes, it still sounds like a pale black-and-white rendition of the wonderfully colored orchestral score; and yes, the inevitable absence of the chorus in the finale seems very strange indeed in an age as familiar with the Ninth as ours is. But taken on its own, this transcription is a remarkable accomplishment. A listener can, in effect, hear the skeleton underlying the fully fleshed-out orchestral Ninth – with careful reproduction of Beethoven’s original phrasing. Liszt’s Beethoven transcriptions, including this one, are still curiosities for a modern audience – there is in fact little of Liszt in them – but this particular one is especially well worth hearing.

      The symphonies of Carl Nielsen are well worth hearing, too, although the juxtaposition of the First and Sixth on a single CD is an odd one – it is hard to believe that these came from the same composer, even 30-some years apart. True, there are characteristic Nielsen touches in both: these are tonal symphonies that can never quite decide what key they are in (No. 1 swings between G minor and C major, and No. 6 between G major and B-flat major). The First is a fairly straightforward late-Romantic symphony (although the tempo indication of the first movement, Allegro orgoglioso, is pure Nielsen), filled with sweep and passion, with vigorous outer movements, a pastoral Andante, and a gentle Scherzo. Michael Schønwandt leads the Danish National Symphony Orchestra/DR with strength and understanding here, in a performance from 2000 that sounds as good now as it did when originally released by the Danish label Dacapo. But the reading of the Sixth, also a re-release from 2000, is even better. This is an extremely strange symphony whose quicksilver mood changes and bizarreries of orchestration keep the audience constantly unsure of what is going on and what will happen next. Nielsen called it, with supreme irony, Sinfonia semplice, because “simple” is the one thing it assuredly is not. Cheerful themes start and stop unexpectedly; outbursts from one section or another of the orchestra are common; the second movement is given entirely to wind and percussion, with the third handed to strings; and the finale is a messy masterpiece: a theme and variations in which utterly trivial tunes give way to great blasts of intensity, a strange waltz with Ivesian dissonance dominates for a while, and eventually a trumpet fanfare practically shouts, “Let’s get this over with already,” and the work ends with a raspberry on the bassoon. Some of this is laugh-out-loud music – a real rarity in a post-Haydn symphony – and some of it is deeply felt; and the way the emotions mingle is simply extraordinary. Nielsen’s final symphony is an unsettling and altogether wonderful experience, especially when performed as well as it is on this recording.

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