Not just gimmicks: rethinking piano transcriptions of orchestra scores

Posted on: July 8, 2019

“In 1988, when I interviewed the pianist Vladimir Horowitz … I asked him if he had any regrets,” writes Anthony Tommasini in Thursday’s (7/4) New York Times. “He said he deeply regretted never having played Liszt’s transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies in public. ‘These are the greatest works for the piano, tremendous works,’ he said. Transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies, long thought of as a little trashy, as the ‘greatest works’ for the piano? … Yes, Horowitz said, in the sense that these Liszt scores are arguments for what the piano is capable of.… A new generation of pianists seems to have caught up with Horowitz’s perspective. Though they present daunting technical challenges, Liszt’s transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies—as well as his versions of other symphonic works, opera excerpts and songs—are not just virtuosic gimmicks. Rather, they are a great composer’s attempt to use his beloved piano as a means to recreate, penetrate and get at the essence of the original music—without the distractions of the orchestra or voice. Recently there have been many notable examples of adventurous younger pianists not only championing transcriptions by Liszt and other composers, but also writing their own.” The article includes discussion and clips of pianists performing transcriptions of orchestra scores.

Posted July 8, 2019

In photo: Vladimir Horowitz, seen here at Carnegie Hall in 1965, said he found Liszt’s transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies “the greatest works for the piano.” Photo by  Jack Manning / The New York Times