(1811 – 1886)
Complete Symphonic Poems
Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne; Tasso; Les Preludes; Orpheus; Prometheus;
Mazeppa; Festklänge; Héroïde funèbre; Hungaria; Hamlet; Hunneschlacht; Die Ideale; Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe; [bonus track:] Mephisto Waltz No. 1
Recorded: 1968-71, Philips/DECCA
Very dependable and not at all so dull as it might seem at first hearing
Unlike some (pseudo)reviewers, I do listen to what I review, often several times before commit anything down on paper (figuratively speaking). I am particularly glad I have done so in the case of Bernard Haitink’s complete recording of Liszt’s symphonic poems, for his essentially restrained approach, which might be a little disconcerting at first, does reward repetitive listening. If anything, Mr Haitink has to be given the credit of the pioneer: his cycle was the first to be recorded (1968-71), about a decade before Masur’s. It must have wanted a great deal of courage to record so much Liszt during those dismally anti-Romantic times.
The major problem with Bernard Haitink’s conducting is exactly this singular restraint of his which hardly suits Liszt’s music. Not surprisingly, the more extrovert works (Les Preludes, Mazeppa, Tasso) suffer badly and receive performances that do not even come close to Karajan’s stupendous renditions. At least in one place – the finale of Tasso – Haitink’s timidity approaches disaster; but he is not alone there: virtually every conductor who has recorded this poem – with the significant exception of Karajan, of course – has made a hash of this glorious finale; even Solti stumbles badly there. Going back to Haitink, he may well lack Lisztian fire and passion, but his supreme musicianship does compensate for that. Liszt’s later poems (Hungaria, Die Ideale, Hamlet), in which his exuberance is a trifle toned down, receive excellent performances, well paced and finely articulated, with powerful but exquisite sound under impeccable control. Haitink’s interpretation of Hamlet is especially noteworthy, for it is one of the best on record. Among the earlier works he is most successful in the relatively tranquil Orpheus and, surprisingly, in the highly dramatic Prometheus where, for once, the conductor lets himself go and delivers a splendidly impassioned performance. (He all but does the same with the First Mephisto Waltz, which is among the most powerful I have ever heard. It stands comparison with both Karajan and Solti.)
At all events, Haitink’s elegant, aristocratic musicianship is way superior to Masur’s jumble of jarring oddities in virtually every aspect: slower pacing, better phrasing, finer climaxes, more drama. Overall, he definitely lacks the Lisztian temperament of Arpad Joo, but he has the advantage of vastly superior sound. It is true that DECCA do have better sonic achievements from the late 1960s than that (indeed the recording was originally made for PHILIPS), but the full, rich and with a fine dynamic range sound here is greatly superior to the digital one that Hungaroton offered Arpad Joo in the mid-1980s.
On the whole, Haitink’s cycle is on the slow side but it seldom sounds dragged. I do often hanker for some excitement while listening to it but, on the other hand, I am never exasperated by abominations à la Masur. At bargain price it is definitely worth having by any self-respected Lisztian – despite the ugly box and the perfunctory liner notes. Contrary to the popular belief, Liszt’s symphonic poems contain a great deal more that orchestral effects and overdose rhetoric. Haitink brings out beautifully the subtle orchestral colours and the numerous ravishing melodic lines. Apart from the few works which do require more vigorous treatment than Haitink’s temperament allows, and are therefore preferable under other batons, the only drawback of this set is the limited number of “bonus tracks” (only one: the First Mephisto Waltz).
In short, Bernard Haitink remains my second choice after Arpad Joo. The latter’s understanding of the peculiar character of Liszt’s symphonic poems is unmatched as far as complete cycles go, whereas the former has the advantage of a much better recorded sound and a fine sense for the more lyrical side of these works. Masur is by far not on par with either, and the only thing that may recommend his set is its remarkable comprehensiveness – and a very low price, if possible.