The only rival of Sinopoli's version on DG
I really wouldn't like to have to choose between Barenboim's and Sinopoli's recordings of Liszt's Dante Symphony. They are extremely different, yet both are totally compelling; which is indeed another proof that great music surely lends itself to a great variety of interpretations. Just about the only thing both recordings have in common is that both are live performances that were recorded during the 1990s: Sinopoli in 1994, Barenboim in 1992. Otherwise differences abound – orchestras, recording locations, labels, temperaments - and the couple makes a fascinating study of contrasts.
Generally and very superficially speaking, Barenboim is more at home in the infernal moments (the outer parts of ''Inferno''), whereas Sinopoli is more memorable in the haunting lyrical sections (the middle part of ''Inferno'', more or less the whole ''Purgatorio'' and of course the Magnificat). But this is definitely an oversimplification; Barenboim does tend to rush the poetry and Sinopoli occasionally underplays the Hell, but neither gets carried away, ever. Sinopoli is more on the slow side, and more consistently so, paying more attention to details, while Barenboim prefers more fluctuating tempi and is not bothered by a little lack of clarity as long as the excitement is there.
TELDEC have given Barenboim and the Berliners stupendous digital sound, equally fine to the one DG provided for the Staatskapelle Dresden under Sinopoli's baton. I venture a suggestion that the great difference in the sound may at least partly be due to the recording location. As usual for anything recorded in the Dresden Semperoper (and listened there live, for that matter), the brass often sounds as if you can catch it out of the speakers and cut it with a knife; fortunately, Sinopoli is a sensitive musician who knew both the orchestra and the acoustics only too well to make any blunders. In contrast, Barenboim's recording was made, not in the Philharmonie as one might expect, but the Schauspielhaus, and I guess this is why his sound is much heavier, more sumptuous and with somewhat blurred details. (Cf. with the 1994 recording of Liszt's Faust Symphony by Eliahu Inbal and the RSO Berlin at the same location.)
Ultimately, of course, the greatest difference is due to the different temperaments of Barenboim and Sinopoli. We do need them both.
The disappointment on the Barenboim's disc is the filler. Admittedly, the excerpts from Busoni's Doktor Faustus on Sinopoli's disc are pretty mediocre stuff too, but they are at least orchestral. Now Liszt's Dante Sonata, being a work for solo piano, is a decidedly odd choice to couple with a symphony for full orchestra. Besides, apart from the titles, and presumably the inspiration for composition, both works hardly have anything in common. Last but not least, strange as it may seem, much as I like Barenboim as a conductor, I thoroughly dislike his performances at the piano. His ponderous and mannered Dante Sonata is, alas, no exception. Moreover, though recorded digitally in 1985, the sound is tremendously artificial, reminding me of a cheap electric piano rather than of a concert grand.
No matter. Skipping the entirely forgetful Dante Sonata, Barenboim's Dante Symphony stands out as one of the finest ever recorded. Sinopoli's subtle interpretation and mind-blowing sound remain my first choice, but I definitely wouldn't want to be without Barenboim's passionate rendition, either. Five full stars. Highly recommended for everybody who really cares about the orchestral music of Franz Liszt.
This performance, like Sinopoli's, is available complete on YouTube: