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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Liszt at 200: Nine Symphonies...for Ten Fingers

Cyprien Katsaris at the piano.
Photo © Carole Hellaiche, from his website.
It was one of those purchases you don't forget.

I was in a used CD store in Boston. (Might have been Cambridge). And there it was: an ugly teal-and-navy striped slipcase with a blue-tinted black and white photo of an intent-looking pianist sitting in profile at a long, black concert grand.

"Beethoven/Liszt: Symphonies Nos. 1-9",
the text said.
"Cyprien Katsaris, Piano."

Now, I was a young grad student with a love of classical music and a habit of spending his off hours in the rush tickets line for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. And I had heard of some of the great pianists. But not Katsaris. I asked my friend who worked at Tower Records about it, and looked up the recordings in the store copy of the Penguin Guide. They seemed legit.

I held off purchase at first, but eventually brought some trade-in items to the store to get credit towards my new purchase. And I took the box--two double jewel cases holding six discs--home with me.

I loved those recordings. And I still do. Mr. Katsaris opened a whole new way of listening to Beethoven. Using the spare notes of the piano instead of a massed orchestra, I learned how to hear musical architecture--the way a theme, a phrase, a counter-melody was introduced by that wily old German composer (and the clever Hungarian who transcribed the works for piano.)


Liszt was just 11 years old when he met Beethoven in Vienna. The date was April 13, 1822. (Stories vary, he might have been 12 and it might have been a year later.) According to a story Liszt told, the young virtuoso was brought to an arranged meeting at the composer's home.  He played several works for Beethoven, including a Bach fugue and a movement from the elder composer's own concertos. According to Liszt, Beethoven watched his fingers and listened with his hand on the piano. He was impressed.

In 1838, Liszt received a request from his publishers to transcribe Beethoven's Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies. He played them alongside his own compositions and opera transcriptions. The Hungarian virtuoso was instrumental in getting Beethoven's music heard--even in towns that didn't have symphony orchestras. In 1863, it was suggested that the pianist transcribe the remainder of the Nine. He completed the set in 1865.

These recordings are astonishing performances, and remain an under-valued jewel of the catalogue. They're great listening if you are a Beethoven aficionado, hearing how Liszt translates Beethoven's orchestral effects to be played by ten dexterous fingers. The best of the set are the Eroica (which sounds even more powerful on the piano), the Pastorale (dreamy and lyrical, almost impressionistic in the Scene By the Brook) and the jaw-dropping Ninth--the last to be completed.

Cyprien Katsaris was the first pianist to record that Everest of transcriptions: the Beethoven Ninth for two hands. Liszt originally transcribed Beethoven's final symphony for two players--four hands. At his publisher's request, Liszt completed a two-handed version. The movements are difficult and astonishingly long (each is the size of a piano sonata) and Mr. Katsaris' athletic, and yes, emotional performance of the final "Ode to Joy" belongs in any self-respecting record collection.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.