Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Review: Lenny and Liszt


It's been growing on me but...

But I still find this recording unsatisfactory. The major reason for that is Lenny's bizarre, to say the least, ideas of tempo fluctuations. Now, the method in general is highly commendable; Liszt himself was one of the first modern conductors to champion it and there is no reason to suppose that it would not suit the Faust Symphony wonderfully. The problem is that Lenny grossly overdoes it! When he is slow, he is abominably deliberate; certain notes are stretched to the point of tremendous dullness, certain pauses are extended beyond any reasonable limits. As if afraid that you may fall asleep, he then rushes through other sections at a breakneck speed, ruining the music more or less completely.

Speaking of timings, at 77 minutes Lenny is one of the slowest on record – but here we actually have a fine example that timings are sometimes very misleading. I, for one, like very much slow tempi in Faust. My absolutely favourite recording – Muti with the Philadelphia Orchestra (EMI, 1983) – is almost as long as Bernstein's; Inbal's outstanding rendition on Brilliant is even slower, stretching the work to more than 78 minutes. Yet, both recordings are way superior to Bernstein's in terms of pacing, orchestral detail and subtle building of mighty climaxes. None of them has such jarring tempo fluctuations or indifferent tutti. Not surprisingly, Lenny's best movement is the most homogenous one in terms of pace, ''Gretchen''. He has some interesting moments in the finale, but even here he leaves a great deal to be desired: the Devil comes off as a little more than innocuous joker. The concluding choir and Kenneth Riegel are both fine vocally, though Lenny, yet again, fails to bring the work to something more than decent conclusion.

The sound doesn't exactly help the matter. It is brittle and harsh, with a decent but hardly spectacular dynamic range, and agreeable but certainly not outstanding clarity of detail. Oddly enough, the recording engineer in this case is Günter Hermans himself, the man with whom Karajan made almost all of his recordings for DG. (And then they tell me Karajan's sound was made by recording engineers!) Since the credentials of the recording engineer are impeccable, and the Boston Symphony is reportedly among the finest American orchestras, it must be supposed that the shoddy sound in general and the timid climaxes in particular are there by Lenny's own insistence. Well, neither suits Liszt's music at all.

I don't quite get the spiritual orgasms of other reviewers about this recording. Then again, there is no such thing as explanation of taste. For my part, Bernstein's Faust on DG is exactly what three stars out of five tell you mathematically: slightly above the average. It makes an interesting listening occasionally, but in terms of power, depth and originality it is no match for Muti, Inbal, Solti, Beecham or Horenstein, to name but a few who manage to realise much more fully the work's greatness. Lenny is charmingly sincere, but that is not nearly enough.

This video recording features absolutely the same performers and was recorded around the same time as the audio version for DG discussed above. In his part of the liner notes to the CD, Herr Hermans even mentions, rather casually, that he is not sure whether some part of the live recording didn’t end up in the studio one. If the Tonmeister himself is not sure, then who is? No matter. Enough was said about the CD. Now a few words about the technical characteristics of the DVD, though some comparisons are of course inevitable.

To begin with, the picture is much too dark to be pleasant. It also is grainy and drab, almost colourless. One is surely wise not to expect anything spectacular from a 1976 video – but compare the quality of this picture, or lack of such, with Karajan's video concerts from the same period and the difference is glaring. Yet the picture is simply marvellous in comparison with the sound. It is horrible indeed, a great deal worse than the one on the CD, which is bad enough anyway. All defects of the latter are here amplified: lack of detail, dismally limited dynamic range, weak climaxes, shoddy woodwinds and even shoddier brass, thin and vapid strings. Even Humphrey Burton, ordinarily a fine director, does not seem in top form here, indulging isnawkward group shots and sometimes altogether parting company with the music. The sordid interior of the Boston Symphony Hall only makes the whole fiasco worse.


Since the Faust Symphony is such a rarity on DVD*, every Lisztian ought to have this one in his collection. It is fun to watch from to time, but it is a major musical and visual disappointment nonetheless for that. Its best feature remains Lenny's trademark dancing on the rostrum: one of the most hilarious phenomena I have ever seen and one of best anti-depressants I have ever tried.

Though still flawed and not terribly convincing as an interpretation, Lenny's 1960 recording with the New York Philharmonic on Columbia/SONY is certainly superior to his inexplicably celebrated 1976 remake with the Boston Symphony on DG. The earlier recording is considerably leaner and tauter, much better paced and much less fragmented than the nearly incoherent patchwork made 16 years later.

The main problem with this recording, surprisingly enough, is the same as with the later one: lack of Romantic rhetoric. This may seem surprising as Bernstein's passionate musicianship is notoriously flamboyant, but it is nonetheless true for that. I wish Lenny had let his hair down during this recording at least as much as he did in many of his other recordings from those golden years with the NYP (his incandescent Tchaikovsky, not to mention his apocalyptic Gershwin, for example). Liszt's Faust would have benefited greatly from such an approach. As it is now, the recording suffers from timid climaxes more suitable to Bach than to Liszt. However, the more lyrical pages – the whole of "Gretchen", the repetition of her theme in finale, the solo trumpet and some other parts of the first movement – come off very nicely, sensitively played and exquisitely beautiful.

The Choral Arts Society is excellent and so is the tenor Charles Bressler, even if the latter could use a stronger voice. The remastered sound is quite good but not really excellent. It's rather dry, lacking in depth and sonority. In terms of clarity, it's an excellent achievement for 1960.

The edition attempts an exact reproduction of the original LP: cover, liner notes, the CD itself, everything. We are conscientiously informed that the LP was released in 1964 and included an omitted on this disc recording of Les Preludes (1963). The booklet contains inside only the original liner notes, a most indifferent, prejudiced and smartly uncredited essay; it appears also on the back cover where it is reproduced in its original LP layout (smallish but still readable).

On the whole, Lenny's 1960 take with the NYP, despite a curious lack of involvement, is a charming curiosity that will bear an occasional listening. Lisztians should have the recording at least because of the eminence of the performers, if not for any extraordinary insight into the score. Liszt neophytes could do far worse with the introduction (try Chailly and Rattle for some of the most amazingly vapid recordings of this masterpiece). Meanwhile, you may hear Lenny's earlier recording on YouTube as well:




In conclusion, Lenny was wise not to record much Liszt during his vastly successful career as a conductor. Both his recordings of Faust, and that of Les Preludes for that matter, are interesting rather than compelling. Perhaps his attitude stood in the way of more exhilarating and insightful interpretations. He once called the Faust Symphony Liszt's one true masterpiece. Nonsense, of course. Masterpieces do not happen by accident. There is no such thing as a composer with one masterpiece. Either Liszt composed many, or his Faust is not.

* I know of only two other DVDs with the Faust Symphony. The 70th Birthday Jubilee of Neeme Jarvi with the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra I have never heard. But I certainly don’t recommend the recently released live recording of Christian Thielemann and Dresden Staatskapelle. 

This is the perfect example to illustrate the proverb ''In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.'' Only I am not sure that Christian Thielemann has even one eye. This painfully dull performance, with slack climaxes and sluggish tempi, is worthy of two stars out of five only because video recordings of Liszt's orchestral masterpiece (not "the" masterpiece; it's one among many) are such a rarity, because the quality of the sound and the picture is tolerably high, because Thielemann's moronic physiognomy is rather amusing, and because I am in a fairly good mood. But the truth is that I have tried to watch it three times – and I have seen all of it but once. Visually it's a great improvement over DG's hilariously ugly DVD with Lenny on the rostrum. Musically Thielemann's sedated "interpretation" is light years behind Bernstein's rendition (which, as already mentioned, is no great shakes in the first place). Small wonder that Liszt's orchestral music is still grossly underappreciated. It will remain so until it is so hideously performed.

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