Monday, 13 May 2013

Review: Liszt - Faust Symphony - Muti - 1983, EMI

My desert-island Faustian deal

I can't say that I really am a great fan of Riccardo Muti, but I can always listen to him with enjoyment. However, his recording of Liszt's Faust Symphony is something of an exception. It is certainly the one I am most often coming back to.

Muti consistently employs rather slow tempi, but
he virtually never drags. Wonderful example is ''Gretchen'', the second movement, where he creates a lyrical portrait of rare tenderness; I, for one, detest conductors who take the ravishing main theme at a breakneck speed and thus achieve nothing but complete travesty (Kurt Masur is the most abominable example I can think of). When drama is needed, Muti delivers it with gusto. The climaxes in the outer parts are fabulously done, combining power, grandeur and musicianship in a most compelling manner. My only slight criticism is that Muti sometimes tends to blur details, particularly as far as the tympani are concerned. But this is a very minor drawback. On the whole, all throughout these nearly 80 minutes he is quite excellent. Such burning passion and epic vision would probably have pleased Liszt himself.

The sound quality is excellent for an early digital recording, the gorgeous tone of the Philadelphia Orchestra has been captured with rare vividness. It is surprisingly natural, with great depth and sonority, and entirely without the artificial flatness so many (not only early) digital recordings have. The dynamic range is truly stupendous but always under the firm control of Muti's baton; but be careful with your speakers anyway. The grand finale – orchestra, choir and organ – is so perfectly recorded that there is not the slightest hint of cacophony – and this is by no means always the case with other recordings. As a special bonus to Muti, Philadelphia and apparently a great recording team behind them, one also gets the Swedish tenor Gösta Windbergh whose rendition of ''Ewich Weibliche'' is the most sensitive and most lyrical I have ever heard.

What about the ''competition''? The Faust Symphony has had the (mis)fortune to be recognised as Liszt's orchestral masterpiece and as such has been recorded by many eminent conductors. It is amazing how often they leave me bitterly disappointed. Far from being the rule, Muti is one of the very few exceptions which I do enjoy.

The most surprising failures are those of Daniel Barenboim and Giuseppe Sinopoli, surprising because both had great orchestras and fine recording equipment at their disposal (the Berliner Philharmoniker plus TELDEC and the Dresden Staatskapelle plus DG, respectively), and surprising because both conductors had recorded fine versions of the Dante symphony, with the same orchestras and for the same labels. Yet in Faust Sinopoli is rushed and unimaginative, and Barenboim is vapid and dull from the first note to the last. Lenny Bernstein has made two celebrated recordings, but neither is any great shakes. The early one with the New York Philharmonic is better recorded and more vigorously conducted, yet it demonstrates the same lack of understanding for the Lisztian idiom, albeit in a less severe form, as the later one with the Boston Symphony. Long before he became their boss, Simon Rattle made an almost unbearably dull live recording with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Riccardo Chailly, who seems eager not to disturb the sleep of the Concertgebouw orchestra, sounds like an inferior copy of Bernstein. The timid and sloppy Kurt Masur is completely unfit by temperament to conduct Liszt's music. Many Hungarians have tried their luck too, and Ivan Fischer, Antal Dorati and Janos Ferenczik do have a fine moment here and there, but on the whole they are no match for Muti's fiery and tempestuous reading.

I often find myself listening to some of the greats from the ''old school''. If you don't mind a faster pace and far-from-perfect sound (at least according to modern standards), Horenstein and Beecham are both superb, especially the latter who manages somehow, miraculously, to employ pretty fast tempi without sounding rushed at all. Interestingly enough, Horenstein made two vastly different recordings, a studio one from 1957 with SWF Baden-Baden and a live one from 1972 with the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra. The former is the first studio recording of the Faust Symphony as well as one of the fastest, most perfectly paced and most incandescent readings ever committed to disc. The later recording is much slower and weightier, but never ponderous.  

There is a fantastic Faust by Eliahu Inbal on Brilliant, a ''modern'' one so to say: a digital recording from 1992 made in the Schauspielhaus, Berlin, with the local Radio-Symphonie Orchester. I don't know what is the reason – perhaps the recording location – but this recording has a very peculiar sound, somewhat hazy yet transparent, with great fullness, sonority and dynamic range. Inbal's tempi are rather slow, but steady, and he almost rivals Muti in terms of drama. Last and unfortunately least among the alternatives, so far as I am concerned, is Georg Solti whose recording with the Chicago Symphony is surprisingly lifeless, and a little too shoddy at some places. Still, it is way above the average in the field and a fine introduction to this complex work.

For those who prefer a more elegant and graceful Faust, with suave climaxes and subtle transitions, there is an excellent recording by Ansermet on DECCA. Unlike others who have tried this unorthodox approach, the soporific Chailly being the prime example, Ansermet pulls it off brilliantly. You can always rely on him for further insight into the score. This recording has recently been reissued by Eloquence together with equally fine renditions of Two Episodes from Lenau's Faust and Hunnenschlacht, some of Liszt's boldest and most original works. The Episodes are particularly noteworthy for at least two reasons. They are seldom recorded as a set, for the first ''episode'', the wonderfully  evocative ''Nocturnal Procession'', is a real rarity; I know of only two other ''complete'' recordings, Joo on Hungaroton and Masur on EMI. Even more remarkably, Ansermet uses the quiet ending of the second ''episode'', the famous, overplayed, over-recorded but still underappreciated Mephisto Waltz No. 1, and that's something I had never heard before; the alternative orchestral tour de force is virtually always preferred. 

Yet if a newcomer to Liszt's symphonic works wants me to recommend a single recording of the Faust Symphony, I will definitely choose Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra. In addition to the passionate performance and the glorious sound, the recording now comes at a bargain price too. It is almost a Faustian deal, and it is difficult to imagine a better one.

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