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Beethoven: Symphonies Nos 1 & 2 (trans. Liszt)

Hinrich Alpers (piano) (Sony Classical)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

Symphonies Nos 1 & 2 (trans. Liszt)
Hinrich Alpers (piano)
Sony Classical G0100044108877 (digital only)   63:05 mins

Before orchestral recordings existed, piano reductions designed for home use were a major industry, and duet publications of Beethoven’s symphonies almost literally two-a-penny. The solo piano versions made by the Beethoven-admiring Liszt were a rather different idea – not keyboard reductions but, as he insisted, fully-fledged piano scores in their own right, involving as much orchestral detail as could tellingly be fitted in. The masterful results, while not quite demanding a full-on Lisztian keyboard technique, were still beyond what most home-based amateur players would have been able to manage, and were intended more for the concert platform.

Also they really do amount to something more than a connoisseur’s experience for dedicated Lisztians. Today we tend to think of Beethoven’s first two symphonies as relatively small-scale compared to the epic masterworks to come, but contemporary audiences were startled by their previously unimagined firepower and rhythmic energy. The skilfully concentrated layout of these arrangements recaptures those qualities remarkably – as in the closing stages of the Second Symphony’s finale, whose eruptive impact here subverts any sense of over-familiarity with the music itself. Hinrich Alpers has finely mastered the art of presenting Liszt’s transcription idiom on a modern concert grand, so that those densely written left-hand chords sound powerful rather than over-turgid (they would have balanced naturally on pianos of the period). And passages like the trio section of the First Symphony’s Scherzo movement come across with a lovely singing quality, happily connecting with the spirit of Beethoven’s original.

Malcolm Hayes