Hinrich Alpers’ Beethoven/Liszt Symphony Cycle

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 8

It takes both uncommon virtuosity and sheer chutzpah to tackle Franz Liszt’s solo-piano transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies. Only a handful of pianists have recorded all nine, but Hinrich Alpers has what it takes to bring off such a project.

He generally offers a more centrist interpretive personality, in contrast with Cyprien Katsaris’ brashness and fortepianist Yury Martynov’s subjective audacity. Liszt’s demands usually don’t faze Alpers, although one might prefer Gabriele Baldocci’s brisker and suppler “Eroica” Scherzo, Frederic Chiu’s more intricate contrapuntal detailing of the Seventh’s finale, or Konstantin Scherbakov’s crisper articulation and more contrasted dynamics throughout the Fourth.

The first two symphonies particularly benefit from outer movements teeming with brio and wit. In the Fifth and Sixth, Alpers favors mass over line (the opposite of Glenn Gould’s more idiosyncratic readings), yet sustains attention through subtle adjustments of timbre and tone color, plus uncommonly suave legato octaves. In the Eighth’s humorous finale, Alpers trades speed for the utmost in accuracy and control of the difficult scurrying figurations.

However, his meticulous yet essentially careful Ninth yields to the power and surging drama of Katsaris’ first two movements. And by bringing soloists and a chorus into the finale, Alpers ignores the intention of Liszt’s original voiceless transcription, basically stepping back to accompany. What is more, the reverberant ambience enveloping the singers has nothing to do with the relatively drier piano sound, as if both components were recorded separately and later edited together. At least that’s what it sounds like.

A misguided Ninth notwithstanding, Alpers pretty much holds his own in an increasingly competitive field. Yet if you want a consistent Beethoven/Liszt cycle from a single artist, Katsaris and Martynov remain the top choices.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Katsaris (Teldec); Martynov (Alpha)

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