A piano will never possess the same powerful sound as an orchestra notwithstanding its immense resources. I remember at the Paris Conservatoire we had to make piano reduction of orchestral scores at sight. The professor would bring to class a symphony we did not know and ask the student to play it on the piano. On these occasions we found that by playing very loud and abusing the pedal nearly all the time we thought were able to recreate to a certain extent the effects of a large symphony orchestra. This was of course an illusion: what sounded to us almost like an orchestra became a mixture of discordant sounds for the listener.

The greatest compliment one could pay the interpreter of a symphonic transcription would be to tell him that it sounds just as if the original had been conceived for the piano. Two qualities are absolutely indispensable to achieve this: perfect clarity of articulation and a polyphonic spirit. In theory, one ought to read each line independently, giving a different timbre to each. But, this is quite impracticable. Yet, details and subtleties can be made more intelligible for the listener by following the score in as linear a fashion as possible. Another important point is not to fall into pure virtuosity. Liszt was faithful to the original in his transcriptions in every point, but without imposing any gratuitous virtuoso effects.

Tempo is also of importance in playing symphonic transcriptions. The pianist must always choose the tempo which will best facilitate comprehension. For this reason, in performing and recording the Beethoven Symphonies, I sometimes sacrificed the rapidity of tempo a little in order to place more emphasis on the unity, regularity and implacability of the rhythm. There are also some cases, in the Ninth Symphony for instance, where it is necessary to take a slower tempo on the piano as otherwise if played too fast the mass effects are swamped by lack of clarity.

Transcriptions are without doubt the only musical works where an interpreter can introduce modifications to the score that are seen necessary to achieve a better understanding of the original. In my interpretations I have followed Liszt’s admirable text as closely as possible. Nevertheless, certain changes seemed desirable. For example, some chords when held by the orchestra do not stop vibrating. Yet, on the piano the sound of a chord fades unavoidably after a moment. So, it was necessary to create illusion of continuous sound. The only way for me to be able to do this was to add a group of notes already contained in the chord which, when played pianissimo, gave this impression. Another example can be found in the Ninth Symphony where the problems are greater because Liszt often tends here to ‘suggest’ rather than literally transcribe Beethoven’s score. In certain passages Liszt’s ‘suggestions’ thus had to be further interpreted. In performing this symphony I often superimposed Liszt’s text and ‘ossias’ which, when played together, produced a better orchestral impression.

Finally, there remains the problem of the repeats, linked to the length of the works and the finite limits of record length as these symphonies were recorded originally for production on LP. I have elected to play a number of repeats: in the finale of the First Symphony, in the first movement of the Fifth, the first movement of the Eighth and the last movement of the Ninth.

by Idil Biret