Friday, 13 February 2015

Eine Faust-Symphonie: A Brief Illustrated Discography

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 recording details, see the photos. For more detailed reviews, click the names.

NB. One of the first and in many ways still the finest recording. Fast and furious, but also elegant, insightful and throbbing with passion. Excellent early stereo. Choir almost perfect, tenor not so much.

NB. Another fast-paced, barn-storming performance, less incandescent and more refined than Horenstein’s, but equally compelling. The sound is a rough early stereo in the best traditions of EMI from the late 1950s. Not the greatest choir and tenor, either. Beecham’s Orpheus is hysterical and quite dispesanble. Psalm XIII is sung in English, but it’s a grand performance. As the rest amply proves, Constantin Silvestri is justly forgotten.

NB. Certainly better, brisker and tauter, than the Boston remake (1976). Very clean if not very spacious sound. Superb choir and tenor.

Ernest Ansermet
NB. Restrained and refined performance, surprisingly convincing. Excellent, fairly early stereo sound. Great bonus tracks: both Episodes from Lenau’s Faust, including the seldom-heard quiet ending of Mephisto Waltz No. 1, and Hunnenschlacht.

NB. Very different, slower and weightier, than his early account (1957), yet totally compelling. Fuzzy choir and screechy tenor, but Horenstein’s orchestral fire is well worth the price of admission. Fine sound.

NB. Possibly the most overrated recording of all. Whatever passionate Lenny fans might tell you, this is a tepid and sluggish performance. Nice choir and tenor cannot redeem it. Indifferent sound.

János Ferencsik
NB. Blistering performance, but far better than many more famous names. Not the cleanest sound, but quite listenable. Reissued as the first disc in Brilliant’s box-set (30 CD).

Late 1970s
Kurt Masur
NB. A travesty, like nearly every other Liszt performance by the timid, sloppy, zany and always chasing a plane Kurt Masur. On the positive side, Herr Masur holds the current world record for the fastest Faust on record. Nobody else has been mad enough, or stupid enough, to play this symphony in less than 62 minutes (the timing for the last movement below is wrong; it should be around 20.50). 

Antal Dorati
NB. Outstandingly disappointing performance considering the eminence of the names involved. Poor sound, too.


NB. Superb concept indifferently performed in subpar digital sound. Jimmy Conlon is one of the great Lisztians among conductors, but he had the misfortune to be saddled with the somewhat sloppy playing of the Rotterdam Philharmonic and the dreadful sound of Erato in the 1980s. Neverthless, his Dante, Christus and Legendes are worth checking out.

NB. The finest Faust in modern sound. Stupendous performance in glorious early digital sound. Even slower than Bernstein’s Boston account, but Muti maintains the tension with masterly hand. Excellent choir and fabulous tenor. 

NB. Perhaps not Soltis finest hour (a bit humdrum and uninvolved), but still one of the best Fausts in modern sound. The tone poems are savage and spectacular. Prometheus is pretty much the best on record. Dante with López-Cobos is a mediocre performance in excellent sound.  

NB. Gorgeous sound wasted on monotonous and soporific performance. Fine singing by choir and tenor, but Chailly is so un-Lisztian that he is hardly listenable. He tries to copy Ansermet, and fails completely.

NB. Grand and sweeping performance recorded in lush and hazy, yet transparent, sound. Inbal leads a very slow performance, slower even than Muti, but his sense of pace and climax building is almost unique in this work. Superb choir. Some problems with the tenor, but no matter. 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. Fine performance which I used to like less than I do now. No first choice, and not the best sound either, but Fischer conducts a powerful account with some insightful touches. Includes also the original instrumental ending in addition to the much better known choral version.

NB. Tedious performance in stiff sound. Rattle is indeed sleepwalking, if he is on the rostrum at all. Tenor sounds like fish out of water. The Berlin Philharmonic was still Karajan’s marvellous instrument, but even they couldn’t play the Faust Symphony conductorless.

NB. Just about dreadful. Wilful for the sake of wilfulness. Rushed and crude. A most unexpected thing to come from the man who recorded the finest Dante Symphony with the same orchestra, for the same label and around the same time.

NB. Much better performance than I used to think. Lack of balance between choir and orchestra in the end and Domingo’s singing-cum-screaming are the only problems. Barenboim achieves precision and poetry which Rattle could not even dream about four years earlier with the same orchestraIncludes a minor alteration in the end of “Gretchen” (see the last photo). Fine sound, rich and deep.

Gianandrea Noseda
NB. I have never heard this one, but based on three other volumes from Noseda’s series I am not anxious to. This recording is the only one known to me which includes only the original instrumental ending. 

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