Reinventing Beethoven’s Fifth

If you are ever misguided enough to think that Beethoven’s Fifth is too familiar and hackneyed a work to get you all excited any more then, I have some advice for you.

I have been listening to the excellent Naxos recordings of Liszt’s piano transcriptions, by the pianist Konstantin Scherbakov, of all the Beethoven symphonies and, if I wore socks very often, they would have been blown off by the hurricane combination that is Beethoven-Liszt.

Beethoven was a virtuoso pianist who could also play all 48 of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues from memory right until the end of his life even though he was nearly stone deaf. He composed at the piano in his scruffy upstairs apartment in Vienna and I have often imagined what that must have sounded like if you happened to be lucky/unlucky enough to be his downstairs neighbour.

Franz Liszt wasn’t just a piano virtuoso, he was the greatest pianist of the Nineteenth Century and, quite possibly, the greatest of all time. He reinvented the sound of the piano and pushed piano technique to an extreme that has really never been surpassed. He was also, and I love him for this, not at all frightened of extremes of vulgarity….it is one of the things that makes his music so exciting.

So the combination of the two giants of the piano is, well, revelatory. Liszt doesn’t turn the symphonies into new Beethoven piano sonatas, he reinvents the orchestra on the keyboard and brings Beethoven’s daring harmonies crashing into our ears in a way that probably replicates the exciting novelty of Beethoven’s works to his first audiences. These works, written in 1865, the year I am concentrating on at the moment, will wake you up to Beethoven’s never boring symphonies.

I have come across another genius associated with these works only recently. The legendary Canadian pianist Glenn Gould made an acoustically challenged but sensationally exciting recording of the Beethoven-Liszt 5th and, it captures the essence of what I find exciting about these transcriptions. It is all about blood and thunder and passion.

The terrible recording adds to the thrill…..I almost wish it was done on a totally clapped out piano…..because through it, you really can imagine yourself as Beethoven’s downstairs neighbour, hearing music being composed in a surge of power which would change the musical world forever.

Here is Gould playing the first movement – hold onto your socks if you want to.

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