Fascinating interpretation marred by mediocre orchestra and dismal sound
This recording is unjustly forgotten by everyone – including myself. Until now.
Jimmy Conlon is a member of one very elitist club among conductors. He is one of the very few who have recorded both the Faust and the Dante Symphonies. I can think of only two other such conductors: Barenboim and Sinopoli. Fascinatingly enough, Conlon's recordings are the most consistent ones; both Barenboim and Sinopoli are exciting in Dante and dull in Faust. Jimmy Conlon is equally fine in both. It is a pity of considerable dimensions that he didn't have a better orchestra than the rather sloppy Rotterdam Philharmonic and a better sound quality than the dismal one offered by Erato, a fabulously, but justly, forgotten label (the Warner reissue is being reviewed here). For a digital recording made in 1985, the sound here is a total disappointment: muffled, flat, badly balanced and thoroughly lacking in sonority.
Jimmy Conlon's interpretation, however, is quite another story. It is pretty wild, with sweeping Romantic passion that reigns supreme throughout the whole work. Admittedly, it does lack subtlety on several occasions, and Jimmy's tempo fluctuations are not always entirely successful. Yet his approach suits the music to perfection and his musicianship is way removed from the superficiality of, say, Jesus Lopez-Cobos (who has DECCA's outstanding sound behind his back, however). In our times of abominable orchestral timidity and terrifying fear of passion, Conlon's fresh, unbridled, impassioned and full-blooded approach is a most welcome scent of high Romanticism. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the striking orchestral effect or with a touch of grand rhetoric now and then if the fellow on the rostrum is sensitive enough not to overdo either, and if he has the temperament to bring the work in question successfully to life. Jimmy Conlon is, and does.
Despite the somewhat subpar quality of the orchestral playing and the wretched sound – and for these reasons only do I give four out of five stars – this recording is well worth the time and the attention of anybody seriously interested in Liszt's music in general and his Dante Symphony in particular. To say nothing of the price that looks almost like getting the CD for free. Had he had the Berliner Philharmoniker and TELDEC or the Staatskapelle Dresden and DG, today Jimmy Conlon would have stood beside Barenboim and Sinopoli as one of the finest Dante Symphonies available on record. Just another artistic loss because of purely commercial reasons. What a pity indeed!
By the way, Jimmy Conlon is a member of another highly elitist club of conductors, too. Actually, he is in class by himself here, for I can't think of any other conductor who has written his own liner notes. This is no joke. The booklet contains a short essay by Conlon himself in which, with a writing style as appealingly florid as his conducting, he gives an excellent overview of how the symphony was born and what is the programmatic significance of its three parts. It must always be remembered that Liszt had no intention to depict Dante's masterpiece in detail – something quite impossible anyway – but, rather, he was infinitely more concerned with expressing its philosophical depth and emotional power. Jimmy Conlon knows that only too well. And his memorable rendition of the Symphony is there to prove it.