By Way of Preface
Eine Faust-Symphonie has been recognised as Franz Liszt’s orchestral masterpiece and, as such, has had the misfortune to be recorded by many eminent conductors. First of all, there is no such thing as a composer with a single masterpiece. Masterpieces do not happen by accident. Either Liszt composed many, or his Faust is not. I am obviously in the former camp.
Most conductors don’t seem to have any idea what to do with this music. They play it through routinely or they blindly inflict on it their personal idiosyncrasies. The results range from passable to pathetic. Bernstein’s both recordings, let’s admit it, have been extravagantly overrated by Lenny’s aficionados; his early take with the NYP is superior to his later rambling without rhyme or reason with the BSO; but not much. Masur, the poor wretch, is unfit by temperament to conduct Liszt. Barenboim is dullness personified. Sinopoli is wacky for the sake of wackiness. Rattle is sleepwalking. Chailly is not even walking: he is soundly asleep and snoring. Most Hungarians don’t fare much better; Fischer is interesting but hardly compelling, and recorded in poor for its time sound; Dorati has little to do with his fiery self a few decades earlier.
It is not all that bad. Unless one is addicted to digital sound and totally averse to vintage stereo, the Old School is worth checking out. Beecham and Horenstein are both tremendous, rather on the fast side by modern standards, but bringing the music to life with flair and sensitivity seldom heard in this work. Horenstein also boasts a wonderfully clear and natural sound, while Beecham suffers from the rough and constrained sonics typical for EMI in the late 1950s. (Horenstein’s late live recording is totally different but equally arresting.) Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra take the gold in the category “modern (i.e. digital) recording”. Indeed, this is one of the all-time greats. Stupendous performance in superb sound! Solti is not as exciting as I expect him to be, but he is still way above the misguided bunch from the previous paragraph, and he is splendidly recorded by Decca of course. Another fine choice on the same label is the aristocratic and refined approach of Ernest Ansermet. Last but not least, Inbal on Brilliant is worth serious exploration. Slow but sweeping, in nebulous yet clean sound, he is a strong contender in a not exactly overcrowded field.
Honourable mentions must be made of Ferencsik and Conlon. These are, in many ways, wonderful performances. Both are suffused with that specific type of Romantic grandeur that is essential for Liszt but, alas, all too rarely encountered. Unfortunately, both are heavily compromised by the sound: the clarity that should be there by default in digital recordings is missing. Conlon’s case is especially painful to listen to. Ferencsik fares better. Nevertheless, these are recommended over the duds in the second paragraph. A fine performance of the Faust Symphony in inferior sound is hugely preferable to a vapid performance in perfect sound.
Only two recordings, so far as I know, have been released on DVD. Neither is worth bothering with. One is Bernstein’s 1976 live account with the BSO, parts of which, as revealed by the Tonmeister, may have gone into the studio recording made with the same forces at the same time. Lenny is charming dancing on the rostrum, as always, but the sound is considerably worse than the CD (where it is no great shakes in the first place) and the picture quality is execrable. The other is Thilemann’s insipid rendition with the Staatskapelle Dresden. Dreadful live performance with Jurowski – clumsy, sloppy, tacky – used to be available on YT but has been removed (thankfully).
The list below includes only CD releases; no LPs, no DVDs. The recordings are listed in chronological order. Only the year and the name of the conductor are given as heading. For the rest, see the photos.
NB. Beecham’s Orpheus is hysterical, certainly not on par with his Faust. Psalm XIII is sung in English but it’s a grand performance. As the rest amply proves, Constantin Silvestri is justly forgotten.
Jascha Horenstein (live)
NB. Dante with López-Cobos is mediocre.
The tone poems with Solti are spectacular.
NB. Weak Dante in poor sound with Haenchen.
But A La Chapelle Sixtine is an exceptional rarity: this is possibly the only recording
of the orchestral version!
NB. Includes also the original instrumental ending.
NB. Reissued as the first disc in Brilliant’s box-set (30 CDs)
Simon Rattle (live)
NB. Includes a minor alteration in the end of “Gretchen” (see the last photo)
This recording includes only the original instrumental ending.