Volume 18 in Naxos' Complete Piano Music of Liszt series is the second of five recordings by Scherbakov that showcase Liszt's piano transcriptions of Beethoven's symphonies. For Lisztians and collectors who relish their Cyprien Katsaris recording(s) (Beethoven/Liszt: Symphonies Nos. 1-9), this release may not be worth buying. Katsaris is simply indomitable because his recording presents the Liszt piano transcriptions with extra doubling and slight alterations in the service of producing greater sonority. However, I believe Scherbakov eradicates all other contenders, namely Gould and Howard. And if you want a stellar interpretation of Beethoven's symphonies, Scherbakov's artistry here is recommendable. Yet this recording may not be desirable for those seeking all of Scherbakov's Beethoven-Liszt: instead of just buying this release, I would recommend purchasing the box set (Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 1-9 Transcribed by Liszt [Box Set]).
In the preface to his edition of the piano transcriptions Liszt says: "The name of Beethoven is sacred in art. His symphonies are nowadays universally recognized as masterpieces. No one who seriously desires to extend his knowledge, or create something new himself, can ever devote sufficient thought to them, or ever study them enough." Liszt's reverence for Beethoven is evident and his genius in the art of transcription has done tremendous things with Beethoven's symphonic works. Liszt's transcriptions capture all of the orchestral effects, textures, and more importantly, the spirit of Beethoven. As such, I don't think even the purists who lambaste "piano reductions" can find fault with Liszt's magnum achievement.
This particular recording presents Liszt's magnificent arrangements of Beethoven's First and Third symphonies. Those familiar with these symphonies can expect faithful renditions from Liszt and exhilarating performances by Scherbakov. As much as I thought I knew the First Symphony, Liszt's transcription highlights new phrasing, voices and melodic ideas that had been buried under the volume of the orchestra. Moreover, the First Symphony sounds like a completely original piano composition from Beethoven; essentially, Liszt did not make a hackwork reduction, but a meticulously crafted transcription that glorifies rather than diminishes the music. Scherbakov's interpretation of the First Symphony is delightful and certainly outclasses Howard's monodynamic recording.
The liner-notes writer, Keith Anderson, vouches for Liszt's wizardry as a transcriber, which is especially apparent in the Third Symphony: "Liszt is able to capture the essence of the work, giving sonority through the use of syncopation or divided octaves, never obscuring the part-writing and avoiding over-dense lower register textures." The first movement, with its fire and nobility, sounds like a Beethoven piano sonata and resounds as a titanic pianistic force. Scherbakov propels each theme with passion and breathtaking virtuosity, although I personally find Katsaris's thunderous execution better suited to the music content. Scherbakov does great things with the second movement Funeral March, though, and treats it like the best of Beethoven's adagio movements. The scherzo and finale are simply glorious and invigorating, where Scherbakov shows an acute sense of musicality in the counterpoint.
Bottom line: It's difficult to find any reason not to buy this recording unless one already owns Katsaris's or would like to own all of Scherbakov's Beethoven-Liszt, in which case I recommend buying the box set. While I feel Katsaris's recordings are supreme, I must still endorse Scherbakov. He is a pianist of quality fiber who plays with panache and brings much-needed technical excellence and musical verve to Beethoven's (and Liszt's) works of art.