Monday, 13 May 2013

Review: Liszt - Faust Symphony - Inbal - 1992

I don't quite know how to describe my fascination for this particular recording of the Faust Symphony. Much as such matters are subjective and not subject to any regulations, this case is twice more so.

It is a studio recording from April 1992 made in the Schauspielhaus in Berlin by the local Radio-Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Eliahu Inbal. With total duration of more than 78 minutes, this is probably the slowest Faust on record; even slower then Bernstein's celebrated (by everybody but me) DG recording with the Boston Symphony from 1976. Unlike his illustrious American predecessor, Inbal has a marvellous sense for pacing and his recording, miraculously, never seems dragged; his climaxes are some of the mightiest and his Gretchen one of the loveliest on record. But what makes this recording really special is the very peculiar sound. Whether because of the orchestra, or because of the conductor, or because of the recording location, or because of all these factors taken together, the sound is incredibly sonorous and sumptuous. It also is somewhat hazy and this may occasionally lead to a slight lack of detail in the tutti, but this seems to suit the music very nicely indeed. The dynamic range is fine, though not exceptional, and the different groups of instruments – the haziness notwithstanding – are recorded with great clarity.

In short, Inbal's interpretation of the Faust Symphony is captured in uniquely lush sound and combines fiery spontaneity with philosophic thoughtfulness in a most admirable manner. No self-respected Lisztian should miss this recording, especially at Brilliant's price. The only disappointment is the tenor in the last movement, one Jianyi Zhang, who is quite incapable, vocally and artistically, to do justice to Liszt's deceptively simple setting of the last two lines of Goethe's Faust. The Berlin Radio Choir – Rundfunkchor Berlin – is excellent.

The second disc is rather a disappointment, though not a major one. Hartmut Haenchen and the Netherlands Philharmonic are competent fellows who obviously do their best, and they manage what not every orchestra and conductor can: they play the whole symphony conscientiously and without any noticeable blunders. All the same, their Dante is rather forgettable, lacking the passion and the fire that is a hallmark of the best versions on disc (Sinopoli for DG, Barenboim for TELDEC). Considering that this performance was recorded live in 1995 and in the famous with its acoustics Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the sound is surprisingly disappointing: harsh, rough and stiff, with unusually limited dynamic range for a digital recording. On the whole, Haenchen's valiant effort, though fairly dependable, is certainly inferior to Inbal's controlled exuberance in Faust. It is a pity that such a judicious coupling of Liszt's two most important orchestral works should suffer such disparity of quality, but at budget price complaints are not recommended.

The real gem on the second disc is A la Chapelle Sixtine (S. 360). Since it was apparently recorded at the same concert as the Dante Symphony, I certainly don't mean the performance. In this case, however, the indifferent execution is balanced by the extreme scarcity of the piece. To be sure, the Dante Symphony is far from over-recorded (indeed, it is grossly under-recorded), but I have never heard of another recording of A la Chapelle Sixtine, at least its orchestral version. (Check Leslie Howard's stupendous recording of the solo piano version in vol. 11 of his magisterial series.) The work was orchestrated by Liszt himself, apparently around the time when the solo piano version was composed (c. 1862), and it testifies not only to his considerable powers of orchestration, but also to his unprecedented ability to take the music of others and make something thoroughly Lisztian out of it. In this case two vocal masterpieces – Allegri's Misere and Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus – and the famous story about them (namely how the young Mozart once heard Allegri's massive work and later wrote it down from memory) stimulated Liszt to create a piece of astonishing power and originality. It is a damned shame that it is virtually never performed or recorded. That's why we are fortunate to have this performance and recording, warts and all.

In short, this a terrific coupling of Liszt's Faust and Dante Symphonies, certainly on par with the more illustrious one on DECCA (Faust with Solti; Dante with Lopez-Cobos; both digital). At Brilliant's fabulous price, it is a steal for every Lisztian, no matter whether he is new to his orchestral works or not. Inbal's Faust alone makes the collection well worth five stars. A la Chapelle Sixtine makes it worth having. One might take Dante as a bonus not altogether unwanted.

P. S. One caveat: the liner notes are disgraceful! Of course one is unwise to expect much at this price, yet do we still need character assassinations in the vitriolic style of Ernest Newman? Well, in addition to a decent historical background and the text of the final chorus, this is precisely what we have here. For example:

Now, Franz Liszt was never afraid of being "sensational." Personally, he was attractive to women, his affairs were notorious, his mistresses were titled, and his illegitimate progeny legion. Both as a man and as a composer he managed to combine with a great deal of success that rather strange blend of religion and sex. In fact, he ended his days as an abbé, became very friendly with the Pope, and composed a great deal of rather perfumed and epicene religious music.

Small wonder that these notes are anonymous. Now, such nonsense might have been taken seriously in 1934, when Newman's ''foolish character assassination'' (Alan Walker) was first published, but today we know quite a bit more about Liszt's life and personality. Apart from already hackneyed contrasts such as ''religion and sex'' – which Leslie Howard has brilliantly described as ''intellectually pusillanimous'' – the above passage is grossly inaccurate, to say the very least. Liszt's mistresses were indeed titled but, as Alan Walker made clear in his monumental three-volume biography, his fabulous Don Juan status is indeed largely a myth. Far from being ''legion'', his illegitimate children were exactly three: he recognised them as his own and was proud to give them his name. That he was attractive to silly females or that his few affairs were subjected to lots of gossip was surely no fault of Liszt. As for the ''epicene and perfume religious music'', I wish the unknown author had deigned to give us some examples. Are we talking of the magisterial oratorio Christus, the harshly dissonant Via Crucis, the sublime Psalm 13 or the brooding Requiem for Male Voices?

Ladies and gentlemen in Brilliant, your budget price re-issues are highly appreciated. But so far as your liner notes are concerned, you would do better to think before printing them.

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