Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is a work of outstanding potency and beauty and has become the piece that most of the world associates with the troubled, brilliant composer.
One of the reasons that we love this piece is it’s unabashed drama and power, exemplified in the four notes of the first five bars, and on as the theme is developed in the first movement.
Listening to an orchestral rendition of the piece, one couldn’t deny that part of the power comes from the massed strings playing in unison and it’s an all-encompassing experience.
When the music is played on the piano, the notes are the same and the emotion from the performer is arguably heightened by playing solo, but the depth simply isn’t there. It doesn’t matter how hard the pianist hits the keys, the opening of the fifth should pin you to the back of the chair and ten fingers simply can’t provide that punch in the chest.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there.
Emotion and strength doesn’t only come from the brute force of a sixty-strong string section. Consider the combination of tones, the intervals played between the sections, the spread of the musicians across the soundstage of the listener, the ability of percussion to provide definite punctuation to the beginning or end of a phrase or note envelope. All of these things combine to make a whole that is far more than the sum of its parts. A single piano couldn’t hope to compete with or emulate this.
This issue is compounded by the piano trying to overcompensate and play too many harmonies below middle C which results in a muddied bass section. An orchestra can afford to divide the labour of harmony between many sections, thus creating texture.
There is no denying that Liszt made a splendid job of transcribing the purely mathematical structure of the notes themselves to be played on a piano, and we all recognise the motif of the fifth, but this motif could be played on a tin whistle.
I don’t believe that Liszt’s transcription detracts from the original any further than a pub band in Norfolk playing “Whole Lotta Rosie” detracts from the emotion of a performance of the same by AC/DC (click to listen, it’s exquisite).
We know what is meant by the performance and we appreciate it for what it is. Of course, I would prefer to listen to an orchestra because I would get the full Beethoven experience, but Liszt’s transcription makes an heroic effort in coming second.