Monday, 13 May 2013

Review: Liszt - Faust, Dante - Solti, Lopez-Cobos - DOUBLE DECCA

One cannot but love DOUBLE DECCA. If there ever was a material equivalent of the immortal phrase ''Double action - satisfaction!'', this is it.

To begin with the philosophical question, it is a really fine idea to fill a double CD with Liszt's two most ambitious symphonic works. May we hope that both the Faust and the Dante symphonies receive one day their true recognition; though the latter has a rather longer way until that happen, it is only slightly inferior to the much more highly regarded Faust. Certainly both works – politely called symphonies; actually multipart symphonic poems – are among Liszt's masterpieces. I can think, unfortunately, of only one such coupling more. This is the double disc from Brilliant which is almost on the same level of DECCA's attempt; it includes Inbal's terrific Faust and Haenchen's mediocre Dante, coupled with the extremely rarely performed (and virtually never recorded!) A la Chapelle Sixtine as a bonus track (also under Haenchen's baton).

The Faust Symphony included here was recorded in 1986 by Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra whose boss for many years he was. It is a legendary collaboration with quite a recording catalogue for DECCA behind it, probably second only to Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker for DG. Such close collaborations between great musicians and great label is bound to produce memorable results. As it might be expected from DECCA, the digital sound is excellent, with impeccable clarity and dynamic range beyond reproach; but without that annoying flatness, or glassy artificiality, or call it what you like, that often affects digital recordings – or at least it used to do so in the early days of the digital era.

Solti's interpretation, however, leaves something to be desired. It is not that I mind his occasional lack of subtlety or disrespect of detail; I do, in fact, mind all these things, but I do expect them from any new recording of Solti I come across. What I don't expect, but what I do, disappointingly, find here, is lack of excitement and involvement – and that, whatever his faults, is not something typical of Solti. Nevertheless, he conducts a fine recording, well-paced and wonderfully musical, if a little dry and dull from time to time. I don't know the reason for this strange inhibition on Solti's side. Maybe he just had a bad day; maybe he didn't like the music enough; maybe it came too late in his career – but, had this been absent, this might well have been a definitive recording. (Not the definitive recording; there is no such thing; every work that justifies the grand description ''masterpiece'' must be opened to at least several equally definitive interpretations). Still, Solti's Faust remains one of the best on record and an excellent introduction to this rather complex and not-so-easy to assimilate music.

Georg Solti had more than a passing resemblance to Mephisto :)
The real gems in this collection, as far as Georg Solti is concerned, are the two symphonic poems on the second disc. These were recorded with the London Philharmonic in 1977 and they do make his Faust sound like a lullaby. Certainly, both Les Preludes and Prometheus have seldom received such a vigorous treatment, almost savage indeed. It works wonderfully in combination with a spectacular late analogue sound. For my part, these are some of finest renditions ever committed on disc, worthy of their place beside the amazing versions of Karajan, Golovanov and (only for Prometheus) Haitink.

The Dante Symphony included here is also a digital recording (1981), but a great deal less distinguished. Jesus Lopez-Cobos is a new name to me, and though the L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande is of course not, it might be called ''one of the finest orchestras in Europe'' only with a great deal of exaggeration. Yet, Lopez-Cobos conducts a very competent Dante and the orchestral playing is top-notch; in combination with DECCA's state-of-the-art sound, it makes for a fine introduction to a work which is even more difficult to grasp than the Faust Symphony. By no means a first choice, for Lopez-Cobos is some light years away from Barenboim's sumptuous rendition on TELDEC or Sinopoli's ''wall of sound'' and subtlety of interpretation on DG, this recording is still preferable to Conlon's fine but unfortunately compromised by dismal sound recording on Erato or Haenchen's rough-and-ready live performance on Brilliant.

In short, excellent bargain for Lisztians and Lisztian neophytes alike. For a mere couple of bucks you get good or better recordings of four of Liszt's major orchestral works, nearly two and a half hours of great music in superior sound. Turn up the volume and enjoy the aural feast.

PS By the way, it is worth noting that the recording of Dante here, as a kind of historical curiosity, includes also the alternative ending which Liszt, apparently, composed on the insistence of Princess Carolyne, and against his own wishes. His artistic instincts seldom were more right than in this case. The alternative ending is just a one-minute orchestral tour de force without any singing: far inferior to the ethereal Magnificat which forms the well-known conclusion of the symphony. But it is kind of fascinating, if weird, to hear this alternative conclusion.

PPS Solti's Faust is available complete on YouTube:

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