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classical notes | david weininger

10 fingers, Beethoven’s Ninth: 1 giant challenge for this pianist

Thomas Stumpf will offer a rare performance of Franz Liszt’s transcription of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Thomas Stumpf will offer a rare performance of Franz Liszt’s transcription of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.Howie Bernstein

Last Sunday, the Boston Symphony Orchestra closed its 2017 Tanglewood season with its traditional performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, as themes of joy and brotherhood resounded through the Berkshires.

On Sept. 9, the Ninth will reappear at a small chapel in Nahant, though in a quite different guise. Gone will be the orchestra, chorus, and vocal soloists; in their place will be a single piano played by Thomas Stumpf, a pianist on the faculty of Tufts University. He will offer a rare performance of Franz Liszt’s transcription of the Ninth.

Learning and playing this behemoth was not his idea, he stressed during a recent phone conversation. “I would never have dreamt this up in a million years,” he said with a laugh. Indeed, the story behind this performance is a bit Kafkaesque. Stumpf said that Jim Walsh, who runs the Ellingwood Chapel Concert Series, wanted the Liszt arrangement of the symphony played, and on asking a colleague of Stumpf’s for a candidate, was told, “Oh, ask Stumpf.”

One problem: Stumpf himself had never played it. Learning it was “an interesting way to spend the summer,” he said, tongue in cheek.

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That few pianists have any of these symphony arrangements in their repertoire is unsurprising. Transcribing all nine of them for solo piano occupied Liszt, on and off, for a quarter century, and each is a formidable undertaking for a performer. The source of the difficulty is the source of their genius: Liszt worked tirelessly to include virtually everything in the orchestral texture. “He leaves out as little as he can possibly get away with and still pretend it’s a piano,” Stump explained. “In those transcriptions are [evidence] not only of a great pianist but of a conductor, and a very great musician who cares a lot about these symphonies.”

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But telescoping the Ninth, with its parts for chorus and vocal soloists in the finale, onto a single keyboard confounded even Liszt, and at one point he begged his publisher to let him stop work after the third movement. (His publisher was not amenable to the suggestion.)

His eventual solution to the problem was both elegant and mysterious. On one set of staves is an arrangement of the orchestral part, similar to the three preceding movements. Above that is another set of staves containing the choral and vocal parts. Playing all of this together is impossible, and Liszt, Stumpf explained, left no explanation as to whether or how the pianist should incorporate some of the choral and vocal parts into the performance.

Like most working musicians, Stumpf doesn’t like to listen to recordings when he’s preparing a piece. But he did consult a recording of the Ninth by Cyprien Katsaris, a French pianist whose name is almost synonymous with Liszt’s transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies. In his recording, Katsaris integrates some of the vocal and choral lines into the orchestral part. That’s what Stumpf decided to do as well, though his choices were different than Katsaris’s. The result, he said, ends up being “Beethoven arranged by Liszt arranged by Stumpf.”

Listening to Katsaris’s performance also brought up a major issue for an interpreter of this music — as Stumpf put it, “Do you make it sound like Beethoven or do you make it sound like Liszt? Because it isn’t quite the same.”

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To illustrate, he referenced an orchestral episode in the finale that follows the tenor solo in the “Turkish march.” It makes for a treacherously dense passage on the piano, which Katsaris plays in the manner of one of Liszt’s virtuoso showstoppers. “It’s fabulous playing,” Stumpf says, “But it’s just not what I want to do.” He prefers what he feels is a more Beethovenian approach. “I want to shape phrases, I want to bring out certain lines that to me are more important than others. I don’t want it to be the same dynamic level throughout.”

Outside of the finale’s pitfalls, musical riches emerge in unlikely places. One of Stumpf’s favorite passages is the symphony’s quiet opening. For a less skillful arranger, the murmuring string sextuplets and glinting melodic fragments might prove impossible to transfer to the piano. “You think, how can he possibly do that? And what Liszt has done is totally brilliant. It sounds, in essence, exactly like the Beethoven symphony, but it also sounds like really great piano music. That amazes me.”

Also rewarding, at the other end of the piece, is the orchestra’s celebratory outburst that closes the symphony after the chorus finishes. It makes for a brilliant piece of piano writing that, according to Stumpf, “could be straight out of the Liszt [B-minor] Sonata. It’s very satisfying because it actually works. You don’t feel like you’re having to fight the piano or your own technique. It’s like, OK, this I can do.”

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Audience members at the Nahant performance will be treated to a glass of champagne after the performance. “I may need more than champagne,” Stumpf quipped when so informed. “I’m more of a single-malt [whiskey] guy. Maybe I’ll bring my flask. That and a stretcher is probably what I’ll need.”

Thomas Stumpf

At Ellingwood Chapel, Nahant, Sept. 9, 8 p.m. Tickets $25. 781-367-2007, www.nahanthistory.org/ellingwood.html


David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.