Sunday, 12 May 2013

Review: Liszt - Dante Symphony - Sinopoli - 1998, DG, Live

Outstanding recording of great music

Much venom has been spilled on Liszt's Dante Symphony, pretty much all of it hokum. It is true, of course, that it is not quite on par with the more accomplished Faust Symphony – but neither is it much inferior to it. Essential part of the misunderstanding is the sad fact that the Dante Symphony has probably suffered more dismal performances than any other among Liszt's symphonic works; and dismal performances of all of his works are by no means rarity.

The Dante Symphony is a very difficult work to carry out successfully. Even today, even with an excellent orchestra, it requires careful rehearsals and real dedication. Most of all, of course, it requires a fine conductor who understands both the diabolic and the poetic sides of the music, and especially the mutual relationship between them. Moreover, Dante does require attentive and repetitive listening even from committed Lisztians in order to be fully appreciated. I remember well the first time I heard it in the concert hall; I was very impressed with the enormously powerful sound but I thought the music a little more than mere noise. Things do change, though. But I shudder to think what a mess the world premiere in Dresden in 1857 under Liszt himself must have been. To say that the Symphony was revolutionary for its time is indeed a gross understatement: the orchestral players must have been completely baffled by Liszt's daring rhythmic and harmonic experiments. Yet, as I've just said, things do change: 141 years later Giuseppe Sinopoli did a splendid job at a concert which, fortunately for posterity, was recorded in fine digital sound by DG.

I may start with the one and only caveat, often remarked upon by other reviewers: coughing. It does occur now and then during the quiet moments and it is extremely annoying. If one can get over it, the only other sonic qualm is the brass which may sometimes be dangerously prominent for your speakers. But this is by no means unusual for the Dresden Staatskapelle when recorded in the Semperoper (why they don't use the acoustically marvellous Lukaskirche anymore I can't even imagine), and it suits the music admirably. Otherwise the sound is well-nigh perfect, with magnificent clarity even in the loudest moments; as for the quietest passages, they are breathtakingly beautiful and supremely well-played. The dynamic range is awesome and the final chords of ''Inferno'' are likely to displace your furniture.

The best thing about Giuseppe Sinopoli is that he does take the Dante Symphony very seriously indeed. Many other conductors think of the work as a noisy orchestral showpiece suitable for nothing else but causing jaw-dropping syndrome in the audience. It is hardly surprising that such attitude leads to dismal performances. It is a well-known fact that the booming brass in the opening theme, which represents the gates of Hell and Dante's famous line ''Abandon all hope, you who enter'', may in second-rate hands sound like the soundtrack of a third-rate horror movie. Not Giuseppe. His interpretation is powerful and frightening without being in the least bombastic and ridiculous as so often happens under less competent batons, especially in combination with superficial minds. Indeed, in the course of the whole symphony Sinopoli refuses to blare the brass, or obscure the strings, or make a cheap show of timpani and cymbals, or to indulge in any other effects for their own sake.

Many mediocre conductors also rush through the quiet parts of the symphony at a breakneck speed paying little or no attention to detail, let alone to poetry. Not Giuseppe. The middle part of ''Inferno'', with that wistful solo on the English horn and the shimmering harps in the background, representing the doomed passion of Paolo and Francesca as well as other famous lines of Dante (''There is no greater sorrow / Than to be mindful of the happy time / In misery'') is one of the most beautiful and exquisitely orchestrated moments in all of Liszt's symphonic creations. The same is true for the lyrical opening of ''Purgatorio'' or the ethereal ''Magnificat'' which concludes the symphony. Sinopoli is superb at all fronts. He takes wonderfully slow tempi, but not too deliberate, and he benefits from the excellent solo players of the Staatskapelle Dresden. Perhaps the highlight of the recording is the climax of the fugue in ''Purgatorio'', a treacherous spot where many a conductor make a hash of the music. Not Giuseppe. He brings forward the haunting horns powerfully, but without obscuring the woodwinds or the strings. There is, indeed, not a single weak moment in the whole recording (which is one of the slowest on record, by the way).

As for the ''bonus tracks'', they show convincingly why Busoni, great pianist, arranger and scholar as he was, is today completely forgotten as a composer.

Never mind. Sinopoli's Dante remains one of the finest ever committed on disc. For sheer power and poetry, and especially the combination of both with tremendous sound, it is rivalled only by Barenboim's equally spectacular rendition with the Berliner Philharmoniker on TELDEC. (There is not much competition, indeed, as few eminent conductors and orchestras have recorded the work.) The coughing of the Dresden audience is exasperating, certainly, but I think the quality of the performance more than compensates for that. It goes without saying that the Dante Symphony is not everybody's cup of tea; to really like it one needs first to acquaint oneself with much of Liszt's other symphonic works as well as to identity with his fascinating personality. Those who don't really care about either had better not listen to the Dante Symphony at all.

No comments:

Post a Comment