Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Review: Jascha and the Faust Symphony

Jascha rocks!

Recorded as early as 1957, this recording (together with Beecham's on EMI recorded in the same year) shares the honour to be the first stereo recording of Liszt's Faust Symphony. Quite apart from the indisputable historical significance, this is certainly one of the most tempestuous and incandescent renditions committed on disc. Ever. No self-respected Lisztian should pass over this recording.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Jascha's conducting is his uncanny pace. The total timing indicates that this is one of the fastest Faust on record, yet absolutely nothing seems in the least rushed; even ''Gretchen'', where faster tempi usually have disastrous consequences, sounds convincingly lyrical. As for ''Faust'', namely the first and largest movement of the symphony (or cycle of symphonic poems if you like), few have captured better than Jascha that weird mixture of spiritual nobility and mental disturbance which is so vividly exemplified by (anti)hero. But the finest movement is certainly ''Mephistopheles'', where Jascha creates an unforgettable – and rather chilling – imitation of Satan's mocking laughter without sacrificing his infernal nature for cheap orchestral effects.

During the whole work, Horenstein's stupendous climaxes and intense strings surely make his Faust one of the greatest on record. The only slight disappointment is Ferdinand Koch whose interpretation of the solo tenor part somewhat lacks sensitivity, though there are many recordings far worse than his. The choir, however, is excellent, with a fine diction and superb command over a wide range of dynamics.

Now, the sound is of course nothing like the modern digital miracles; it is not even on par with most late analogue recordings made for major companies (DG, DECCA, EMI) during the 1960s and 1970s. That said, considering the year of the recording (1957), the obscurity of the label (VOX) and the even greater obscurity of the orchestra and the chorus (SWF Baden-Baden), the sound is fabulously well done (actually better the rough and constrained stereo EMI gave Beecham the very same year) and the orchestral playing is spectacular throughout. Just about the worst thing you may experience sonically is to hear a little shrillness in the strings or a negligible roughness in the brass. At all events, Jascha's passionate approach and fine musicianship completely transcend such mundane matters.

It is just wonderful that Membran have re-issued this legendary recording, wonderfully remastered and handsomely packed in a slim cardboard box with one of Liszt's most famous early portraits on the cover, to say nothing of the almost embarrassingly cheap price. If you admire Liszt's symphonic works, especially his Faust Symphony, but have not heard Jascha's tremendous 1957 performance yet, do not waste time but lay your hands on this CD as soon as possible.

Jascha did it again

Recorded live in concert, as late as 1972 (full 15 years after the studio recording and only one year before Horenstein's death), and with the rather mediocre BBC Northern Symphony, this performance has been recently issued in the BBC Legends series. Both recordings are fascinatingly different. Whereas the studio one is among the fastest (a little over 67 minutes), the live performance is over 74 minutes long, that is some 10% longer than its predecessor. The English tenor, choir and orchestra are inferior to their German colleagues, but Horenstein's combination of power and subtlety still makes the CD well-worth having.

It is indeed difficult to mistake Horenstein's fiery temperament and huge sound. His conducting displays a rare amalgam of meticulous detail and undiminished spontaneity; especially noteworthy – again – are the gorgeously sonorous strings in which many a detail often missed by other conductors are revealed here. Horenstein is spectacular more or less at all fronts: the climaxes are frighteningly powerful, the lyrical passages are meltingly beautiful, the pace is judiciously handled without being in the least mechanical or wayward. The performance is a superb combination of poise and power. Despite numerous differences with his earlier studio effort, not only in terms of tempo, he is equally convincing. I know of no surer mark of true greatness.

The only disappointments here are the vocalists in the last part: both the choir and the tenor are rather lame fellows. The former’s diction lack clarity, the latter's voice is scratchy and, at times, with dismal wobble. Considering that the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra is far from the greatest in the world, the orchestral playing is top-notch. No doubt Horenstein's genius for conducting has a lot to do with that, too.

For a live recording from 1972, the sound is excellent; my only qualm is that the bass is occasionally a little too prominent. The dynamic range is staggering and the separate groups of instruments come through with admirable clarity. Joel Lazar's liner notes are a fascinating symbiosis of informative content and touching personal recollections. They investigate in detail Horenstein's relationship with the Faust Symphony, a work he said he loved deeply. It shows.
An indispensable addition to the shelves of every Lisztian

The live recording is available complete on YouTube:

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