November 23, 2022


Liszt: Piano Transcriptions of Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 1-9 (complete). Giovanni Bellucci, piano. Brilliant Classics. $19.99 (5 CDs).

Sigismond Thalberg: L’art du chant appliqué au piano; Three Schubert Lieder transcribed for solo piano; Auf Flügeln des Gesanges by Mendelssohn; Mi manca la voce by Rossini. Paul Wee, piano. BIS. $39.99 (2 SACDs).

     Ferruccio Busoni once observed that “good music, universal music, remains the same regardless of the means employed to perform it,” although “different means have different languages, each one distinct and characteristic.” Busoni’s observation, although made in regard to Bach transcriptions, applies with equal elegance and precision – but in very different ways – both to Liszt’s piano transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies and to Thalberg’s L’art du chant appliqué au piano. The new five-CD Brilliant Classics release of the Liszt/Beethoven works, featuring Giovanni Bellucci, is one of the best renditions this amazing music has ever received in recorded form, and is the absolute best bargain for this repertoire to be found anywhere. Except for one thing, it would be a set that belongs in the collection of every listener who loves Beethoven, Liszt, and their combinatorial prowess. Bellucci is an absolutely wonderful pianist: studious without being studied, thoughtful without sounding as if he has overthought his performances, he possesses a combination of flawless technique and the intellectual capacity to put his abilities at the service of both Liszt and Beethoven. Liszt’s transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies, created in various guises during a three-decade period, never fully satisfied Liszt himself: he eventually decided that the Third, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh worked well enough, but the other symphonies were less satisfactory in piano versions, and the Ninth was simply impossible. Liszt was scarcely the first to create piano versions of the Beethoven symphonies, even commenting somewhat disingenuously at one point that “the arrangements for piano of these symphonies, of which there are now many, are not without value” – thus drawing attention to his own plan to do a better job than others, such as Friedrich Kalkbrenner, had done. Liszt’s final versions of the Beethoven transcriptions date to the 1860s, by which time the piano had largely assumed the form in which we know it today – and had gained the necessary strength to project the wide range of sounds and techniques necessary to communicate Beethoven’s orchestral arrangements.

     Bellucci uses a modern Steinway D, the concert grand of choice for most contemporary virtuoso performers, and in this case the choice is more than satisfactory, since it allows the pianist to produce the sound Liszt wanted and reproduce the effects Liszt was seeking – even in the Ninth, which Liszt eventually figured out and which Bellucci presents in a very unusual way, with the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno joining him in the finale in a live recording dating to 2014 (the remaining performances here date to 2018, 2020, and 2021). In truth, hearing the Ninth this way is odd: Liszt’s eventual solution to the transcription may not have been wholly satisfactory, but it is worth hearing as Liszt intended, and the use of the chorus both enhances the transcription and interferes with it. Thus, Bellucci’s performance of the Ninth is an anomaly and the most-divisive reading in this set, and is something of a curiosity – the exceptionally fine pianism notwithstanding. Nor is this the only drawback to the set as a whole. The other, more-pervasive issue is that Bellucci offers highly personalized approaches to all the symphonies, with very frequent, sometimes near-constant rubato and tempo alterations that will come as a distinct surprise – sometimes a pleasant one, sometimes not – to audiences familiar with these works, as almost anyone interested in this recording will be. One example among many is his extremely slow and exceptionally tempo-variable second movement of the “Eroica.” It is certainly possible that virtuoso pianists of Liszt’s own time, including Liszt himself, may have handled these transcriptions this way, putting their own stylistic stamp on the music instead of simply trying to reproduce its pacing and overall sound within the confines of the piano. But the stop-and-start quality that Bellucci gives to many of the symphonies’ movements will certainly seem to some listeners to interfere with their natural flow – although others will find Bellucci’s emphases and focuses very refreshing in highly familiar repertoire. To be sure, Bellucci’s sense of the symphonies’ structure, their emotional content, their motivic development, their intended impact, their orchestral effects as “pianized” by Liszt, is so apt and so well-thought-out that every performance is revelatory. Liszt’s transcriptions did not always contain (or try to contain) all the orchestral color of the symphonies, focusing on their underlying structural frameworks more than the effects of coloristic detail provided by instrumental groupings – indeed, this is likely one reason Liszt was never fully satisfied with his versions of all the symphonies. But Bellucci clearly knows where both Beethoven and Liszt were coming from in terms of the sound and balance of every symphony, and he manages – to cite just one example – to track clearly the ways in which the largely Classical elements of the First begin to transform in the Second into the grandeur and pathos of the Third, providing each individual work with its own character while showing the overall continuity of the entire set. Whether hammering home the intensity of the Fifth or relaxing “by the brook” in the Sixth, Bellucci inhabits these symphonies to an exceptional and exceptionally convincing degree. Its quirks notwithstanding, there is no finer or more-convincing version of the Liszt/Beethoven symphonies to be had anywhere, at any price – and none at all to be had at this price, which almost constitutes a gift to music lovers everywhere.

     Busoni’s thoughtful and trenchant remarks on different means and different musical languages apply equally, albeit not in the same way, to a two-SACD BIS release featuring another thoroughly remarkable pianist, Paul Wee, performing a two-hour work that is much, much less familiar than the Beethoven symphonies (on their own or in Liszt’s transcriptions). This is L’art du chant appliqué au piano, created from 1853 to 1863 – about the same time period in which Liszt finished his Beethoven transcriptions – by another Liszt-quality pianist, Sigismond Thalberg (1812-1871). The supposed pianistic rivalry between Liszt and Thalberg was largely fomented by the media of the day, but certainly both men were extraordinary virtuoso performers and composers of some skill – although Liszt’s works go well beyond the display pieces in which Thalberg specialized and have turned out to have much-more-lasting value. However, L’art du chant appliqué au piano is not a Thalberg “display” piece but a carefully conceived bit of didacticism that constitutes a genuinely fascinating instruction manual for pianists interested in producing specific effects with their instrument. The piano is a percussion instrument, producing sound through hammers striking strings, and this means that sound starts to diminish as soon as it is produced (with some modification possible through pedal use). The human voice is far more versatile, not only in range (if one considers all vocal ranges) but also in the ability to sustain a line and increase or decrease its volume and expression note by note. On the face of it, there is simply no way the piano can “sing” as the voice does; but then, on the face of it, there is no way the piano can encompass Beethoven’s symphonies, either. Just as Liszt solved the Beethoven “problem” brilliantly, so did Thalberg in L’art du chant appliqué au piano solve the “vocal expression” one – accomplishing, in some ways, even more than Liszt did. Thalberg set forth his approach to this 40-piece work very clearly in a well-written introduction to its publication – a writeup that is very intelligently included in the booklet for this release. Indeed, this is an exceptionally intelligent release on many levels, not the least of which is Wee’s own booklet notes and his thorough understanding of the music of Thalberg’s time and of Thalberg’s approach in L’art du chant appliqué au piano. Essentially, Thalberg took famous arias both from songs and song cycles and from operas – which were the “pop music” of the day – and showed, again and again, how to make their vocal lines “sing” on the piano. Some of the operas that Thalberg chose remain well-known today (Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, Bellini’s I Puritani) while others have long since fallen into obscurity (Mercadante’s Il Giuramento, Grétry’s L’amant jaloux). But it turns out that it does not matter whether the original material is well-known or unknown: Thalberg’s purpose here is to show how the piano can highlight the vocal line while preserving its accompaniment, reproducing the effect of sung material despite the apparent impossibility of doing so with an inherently percussive instrument.

     It requires exceptional pianism to make this particular tour de force work – pianism related to but different from that required for Thalberg’s far-more-common display pieces – and Wee proves an absolutely perfect match for the material. Thalberg included in L’art du chant appliqué au piano not only material identified as “arias” but also art songs (Beethoven’s Adelaïde), folk songs (Fenesta vascia, a Neapolitan song also used by Liszt in one of his works), song-cycle excerpts (from Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin), even the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem. Every single work in L’art du chant appliqué au piano requires tremendous understanding of the primary vocal line and of the setting within which it appears – and Thalberg shows how every single one can be turned into a piano piece of tremendous effectiveness, in the right hands. Wee’s hands are certainly the right ones: his way with this music is exceptional, whether he is bringing out the beauty of Casta diva from Bellini’s Norma or allowing his virtuosity full scope in one of the few overtly display-oriented pieces here, Nel silenzio fra l’orror from Meyerbeer’s Il Crociato. It is difficult to overstate just how well Wee understands what Thalberg is doing in L’art du chant appliqué au piano, and just how well Wee demonstrates Thalberg’s enormous understanding of pianism in all its elegance and emotional sensitivity, not merely its bravura capabilities. L’art du chant appliqué au piano was not Thalberg’s only foray into transcriptions designed to highlight the piano’s “vocalizing” capabilities – Wee includes several other examples, all of them handled as well as those within the extended work – but certainly L’art du chant appliqué au piano was Thalberg’s magnum opus in this area. Wee’s recording makes a strong argument that it is, or should be, one of Thalberg’s by far most enduring legacies, and a work from which today’s pianists can benefit as much as could those of Thalberg’s own time.

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