replay

Robert Cowan makes his pick of the latest reissues; Beethoven: Symphony No 9 (arranged for piano solo by Liszt) Cyprien Katsaris (piano) (Recorded: 1983) (Teldec 4509-97957-2)
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Staggering! And the strange thing is that rather than imagine Liszt at the piano, you actually imagine Beethoven himself. The Scherzo becomes a stamping dance - wild, overloaded with notes but calming before what now sounds like a Mozartian Trio. The slow movement opens like a chaste "theme with variations", then gains in colour as the writing becomes more ornamental. But it's the outer movements that work best. Immediate impressions suggest a fired-up Beethoven leaping to the keyboard and improvising his opening idea. The first climax lifts to a mighty surge in the bass; there's an excited rush towards the central conflict and an immensely imposing coda. And the finale? Listen to the contrapuntal build-up of the "Ode to Joy" theme or the bald impact at the spot where a bass would normally have sung his famous recitative; suddenly you're reminded of Liszt's own Vallee d'Obermann, composed during the period of this magnificent transcription. There's one hell of a commotion prior to the "Alla marcia", and if the March itself sounds a bit like a thinking-man's Charlie Kunz, the imagined chorus is positively transcendental.

Liszt redistributes virtually all of Beethoven's original harmonies in keyboard terms, then Cyprien Katsaris syphons them through his own orchestral imagination. It's an astonishing achievement.

The "lighter" Elgar? Mostly, I suppose - although the achingly beautiful Romance for bassoon and orchestra casts recognisable side-glances at the contemporaneous Second Symphony and Violin Concerto. Elgar's miniaturist imagination took its furthest flights when lingering among his bigger works, though no one with an ear for a good tune would willingly forgo, say, the Organ Grinder's songs from The Starlight Express (sung here with manly confidence by baritone Frederick Harvey), Mina (Elgar's last completed orchestral work) or the "ancient and modern" contrasts in the third of the "Three Characteristic Pieces" - a one-time morning call on Radio 3.

Just under half of the programme is conducted by the veteran Lawrance Collingwood, a fine musician who - back in January 1934 - conducted music from Elgar's Caractacus while the dying composer supervised the session from the other end of a land-line. Collingwood is responsible for the best-known goodies: Chanson de matin, Salut d'amour and Dream Children. Turn then to Sir Neville Marriner's able Northern Sinfonia and you switch from heart-rendering affection to superior routine. It's a noticeable stylistic jolt, although the recordings are well matched and the programme as a whole - an extremely generous one, running to nearly 79 minutes - should give much pleasure.

The Lighter Elgar

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Lawrance Collingwood

Northern Sinfonia Orchestra / Sir Neville Marriner

(Recorded: 1964-1970)

(EMI CDM5 65593 2)

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