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February 5, 2024

Hear a Beethoven Symphony Like Never Before, Courtesy of Liszt


UMS is delighted to welcome internationally acclaimed pianist Igor Levit to Ann Arbor on Friday, March 8. His innovative program features rarely performed piano transcriptions (arrangements of large ensemble works for solo piano) of powerful orchestral works by Mahler and Beethoven.

A great example of transcription is this 2020 video, in which Igor Levit demonstrates Franz Liszt’s arrangement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony and its famous “Ode to Joy” (originally featuring a full orchestra and choir):

Beethoven’s nine symphonies were all painstakingly transcribed for solo piano in the 1800s by the famous composer and pianist Franz Liszt. But what inspired Liszt to take on such a daunting task, and what makes Liszt’s transcriptions a special treat for listeners?

Liszt started his project in 1838, when he was still a young and dazzling pianist, touring Europe and impressing audiences with his unparalleled technique and expressive power. He initially transcribed the fifth, sixth, and seventh symphonies, which were published by different publishers in Germany and Austria. Liszt then put aside his work for more than two decades, until 1863, when he received a request from the publisher Breitkopf & Härtel to transcribe the complete set of symphonies for a future publication. Liszt agreed and revised his earlier transcriptions, adding more details, indications, and fingerings.

Liszt’s motivation for undertaking this monumental task was not only his admiration for Beethoven, whom he regarded as the greatest composer of all time, but also his desire to make Beethoven’s music more accessible to the public.

At the time, orchestral concerts were rare and expensive, and most people could only hear Beethoven’s symphonies through piano arrangements. Liszt wanted to provide the most faithful and accurate versions possible, using all the resources of the modern piano, which had improved significantly since Beethoven’s time.

Liszt wrote in his preface: “Through the immense development of its harmonic power, the piano is trying increasingly to adopt all orchestral compositions. In the compass of its seven octaves it is able, with only a few exceptions, to reproduce all the characteristics, all the combination, all the forms of the deepest and most profound works of music.”

His transcriptions are not only faithful to Beethoven, but also witty, creative, and original. He does not merely copy the orchestral parts but adapts them to the idiomatic possibilities of the piano, adding embellishments, variations, or modulations to enhance the musical effect. He also uses a wide range of dynamics, articulations, and pedaling to create contrast and clarity.

Liszt’s virtuosic transcriptions are among the most technically demanding piano music ever written. They require not only speed, agility, strength, and endurance, but also finesse, sensitivity, and imagination. They offer a unique listening experience and perspective on Beethoven’s symphonies, revealing new aspects and details that might be overlooked in the orchestral version.

In a 1988 interview, famed pianist Vladimir Horowitz stated: “I deeply regret never having played Liszt’s arrangements of the Beethoven symphonies in public – these are the greatest works for the piano – tremendous works – every note of the symphonies is in the Liszt works.”

Igor Levit

None of these transcriptions have ever been performed in UMS’s 145-year history…until now!

On March 8, Igor Levit will perform Liszt’s arrangement of Beethoven’s beloved Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica” (Heroic).

Levit is one of the most celebrated pianists of our time, whose accolades include prizes at numerous international competitions, including the Maria Callas Grand Prix in Athens, the Hamamatsu International Piano Competition in Japan, and the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv. Most notably, he won the 2018 Gilmore Artist prize — the most elusive and prestigious of them all, only awarded every four years to an exceptional pianist who has the potential to make a lasting impact on the musical world.

We cannot wait to hear his own virtuosic interpretation of Beethoven’s symphony…courtesy of Franz Liszt!

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