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The Conscientious Translator: Beethoven/Liszt: Symphony No 7

The MHS Review 404, VOL. 12, NO.8• 1988

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David M. Greene


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One thing that I am at last beginning to learn is that I must not sell myself short, at least where the arts are concerned. I was brought up with an unhealthy respect for authority, which has always been, as far as I am concerned, someone else. I find it hard to imagine that my opinions are sound, or that, even if they chance to be, anyone wants to hear them. I tried every way I knew how to avoid voicing them when I first started writing these columns, especially because I quickly learned that what William Safire calls the Gotcha! Gang ever lurks just beyond the light of the campfire waiting to pounce.

But over the years I've come to see that my instincts are reasonably good, that I have had a modicum of experience, and that I am frequently in agreement with the savants--though it occasionally takes them two or three decades to come around to my viewpoint. So with the Liszt transcrip­tions of the Beethoven symphonies, I've thought them remarkable from the first, but, conscious of the recent bias against such floutings of the intentions of genius, I hesitated to say so. Recently, however, I've been catching up with reviews of Cyprien Katsaris' recordings of the series, and I find the Big Boys unabashedly throw­ing their hats in the air. So on the occasion of this record I officially toss my beanie. I must add that no one at MHS has ever told me what to say about the product or even intimated that I must take any stance at all; what I write is pruned only when I over­run the space available.

Not all of the several pianists who have essayed to record this repertoire in recent years (the only period in which it has been recorded) have been successful with it. Writing in Fanfare (X:4,), Peter Rabinowitz (who admires at least Glenn Gould's Beethoven Fifth) points out the problem. These transcriptions, he says, are both new and old. They are obviously new to the performers, but old to the listeners, who hear them with ears educated by, say, Walter, Karajan, Furtwangler, and Toscanini. Not that we expect them to pro­duce orchestral sounds, but we have our developed notions about how the music should go, which they don't always live up to--and perhaps can't.

Beethoven unveiled the original of the Seventh Symphony at the University of Vienna on December 8, 1813. His hearing was by then already seriously impaired, and, apparently on that account, he con­ducted with exaggerated gestures that amused or shocked some of the audience. Nevertheless, the work was a huge success from the start. Liszt seems to have had a special affection for it. His piano reduction was made, together with those of the Fifth and Sixth, in 1837, and dedicated to the painter Ingres; the others had to wait for more than two decades. At the ceremonies for the dedication of the Beethoven monu­ment in Bonn in 1845, Liszt elected to con­duct numbers five and seven.

A member of the Gotcha! Gang protested that no mere piano player ought to tread such sacred turf, whereupon an anonymous defender pointed out in the public press that these were in Liszt's con­ductorial repertoire at Weimar. Liszt's son­-in-law Richard Wagner called the sym­phony ''the apotheosis of the dance,'' and Liszt seems to have agreed, at least in part, when he characterized the slow movement as a ''mysterious dance of angels and spec­tres." (But Vincent d'Indy later argued that such a view was nonsense; the thing, he said was "a simple pastoral.")

In his preface to his collection of the transcribed symphonies, Liszt said modest­ly, "My aim has been attained if I stand on a level with the intelligent engraver, the conscientious translator, who com­prehends the spirit of a work." But Sir Donald Tovey suggested that he was ''by far the most wonderful interpreter of or­chestral scores on the pianoforte the world is ever likely to see." (These last two quota­tions are from Alan Walker's 1970 sym­posium Franz Liszt: The Man and His Music.)

I should note that Katsaris plays a slightly abbreviated version of the Scherzo. Perhaps to make up for it he adds as a filler Robert· Schumann's Eludes on the sym­phony's Andante, a work first published a little over a decade ago.

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