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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
A Faust Symphony* (rev. 1861) [67:12]
Two Episodes from Lenau’s Faust *(1856-61): (Dance at the Village Inn (Mephisto Waltz No. 1) [12:01]; Nocturnal Procession [14:57])
Hunnenschlacht (Battle of the Huns) + (1856-7) [14:39]
Alberic MAGNARD (1865-1914)
Symphony No. 3 # (1895-6) [38:23]
Werner Krenn (tenor)
Choeur Pro Arte de Lausanne
L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet
rec. Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland: * September 1967; + November 1959; # September 1968. ADD
DECCA ELOQUENCE 4429992 [79:23 + 68:42]
Experience Classicsonline

Whilst not amongst the top rank, L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande under its principal conductor, Ernest Ansermet, gained an enviable reputation for its acclaimed recordings - notably of the music of Debussy and Ravel. Ansermet was respected for the clarity and transparency of his readings and for his meticulous attention to composers’ score markings.

A number of composer’s works including Eine Faust-Symphonie were inspired by the Goethe’s diabolical creation, notably Berlioz – and, later, Gounod. Indeed Liszt had already begun work on a piece based on the Faust legend in the 1840s but it remained tentative until he heard Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust - itself dedicated to Liszt - in Weimar. Liszt then began work in earnest basing his symphony on three character sketches of the story’s three protagonists: Faust, Gretchen (Marguerite in some versions) and Mephistopheles with a finale tacked on. Really this is less a symphony than a collection of symphonic poems, not far removed from Les Préludes and Mazeppa. The original version was first performed in the presence of both Berlioz and Wagner. Criticism prompted him to add trumpets, trombones and percussion as well as a final chorus based on the Chorus Mysticus in the finale of Part II of Goethe’s play. The premiere of this revised version took place in 1861 conducted by Liszt himself. It is dedicated to Berlioz. Liszt added another 16 bars to the slow movement in 1880. 

The 27-minute opening movement Faust is a multi-dimensional character study. No less than five main themes (or leitmotifs) are stated, each assigned to different character traits. All these themes are constantly transformed to indicate Faust in various contexts and emotional states. A slow introduction indicates his mystical side, the second with an oboe solo represents his emotional state, whether passionate, amorous or melancholy. A turbulent third theme is heard on strings, then on woodwinds to depict Faust as lover as the fourth theme. Finally a quasi-noble, assertive theme in E flat is heard on brass to indicate Faust as man-of-action. Ansermet brings excitement and tenderness in full measure to this intense music. 

Gretchen, as one might expect elicits a far more tender approach and as Greg Keane remarks in his erudite notes for this release, the movement epitomizes Liszt’s idealized concept of womanhood. As such the scoring is light and intimate, quite chamber music-like in its sonority - particularly at around 11:00. Again quoting Keane, “Gretchen herself is represented by a duet between oboe and viola, suggesting both beguiling innocence and trepidation in the face of temptation.” Faust’s entrance is indicated by brass and low tremolando strings plus Faust’s amorous oboe theme from the first movement, that interrupts her gentle reveries. She is clearly urged towards passion as her second theme heard on strings and marked dolce amoroso indicates. Mephistopheles brings out all of Liszt’s trade-mark diabolical musical figures. The music is quicksilver, fast-moving and filled with sardonic wit – well they always said the Devil has the best tunes. Again quoting Keane, “Mephistopheles is seen as the negation of all humanity, a purely destructive force and generates no new music of his own … Gretchen’s themes are heard intact, unsullied by Mephistopheles whereas Faust’s various themes are fragmented, parodied and distorted continually in a travesty of the first movement.” Liszt introduces into his coda a choir and tenor solo - Krenn nicely tender and sincere in his supplication - to achieve the celestial effect of an apotheosis as the soul of Gretchen/Marguerite is saved from damnation. 

Ansermet’s orchestra deliver a polished and tremendously thrilling performance of Liszt’s orchestral masterpiece. 

Two Episodes from Lenau’s Faust. These two atmospheric works were inspired by the Austrian poet Lenau’s version of the Faust legend. Lenau was the pseudonym of Nikolaus Franz Niembsch another melancholy romantic. In this version Faust and Mephistopheles interrupt a wedding feast at an inn. Faust dances with the bride, seduces her and carries her off into the woods to spend her wedding night in wild debauchery. At the end, they are damned for eternity for their immorality. Above the ending, Liszt quotes Lenau’s last line – “and they drowned in an ocean of their lust”. Dance at the Village Inn (Mephisto Waltz No. 1) is much the better known of the two episodes. It has been recorded a number of times notably by Leopold Stokowski on a BBC mono issue - BBCL 4059-2 and by Fritz Reiner with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on RCA. Ansermet offers a thrilling, characterful alternative that, if it isn’t quite as tense or as sexy as Reiner’s reading, it nevertheless offers a greater depth of malignance and mordant, satanic wit. Nocturnal Procession is much less well-known. It is a beautiful nocturnal pastoral evocation with extraordinarily beautiful writing for strings and woodwinds. One can imagine the flight to the woods by the couple to the sounds of nature. It is intense and passionate too with a hint of supernatural menace and church bells. A note of piety serves as a contrast and perhaps as a warning. Nocturnal Procession makes demands of orchestral virtuosity to which OSR rises with dedication and aplomb.

Hunnenschlacht (Battle of the Huns). This rarely performed Liszt symphonic poem was inspired by a painting by Wilhelm von Kaulbach of a battle between the Romans and the Visigoths in 451AD. Of the opening allegro tempestuoso Liszt demanded that “the entire colour should be kept dark and all instruments must sound like ghosts”. The whole work bears all the familiar Liszt fingerprints: urgent pacing, tempestuous excitement, staccato blasts and hammerings, noble, patriotic fanfares and evocations of battlefield chaos. Amongst all the bombast, a solo organ and mournful strings, sounds an elegiac tone. The piece ends in a glorious hymn of victory with brass shouting and cymbals clashing. A pattern for 1812? 

It is a quirky fact that Alberic Magnard is one of those composers best remembered for the circumstances of his death – he died, shot, defending his country house north of Paris against advancing Germans in 1914. Magnard was born into a distinguished literary family, his father became editor of Le Figaro. He studied at the Paris Conservatoire and later transferred to the Schola Cantorum where he was influenced by César Franck and Vincent D’Indy. He later taught counterpoint there himself. 

To his credit, Ansermet chose to record Magnard’s Third Symphony at a time when out-of-the-way scores were practically ignored. In fact it was, for many years, the only recording of any work by Magnard. This is a shame because this Symphony is very approachable and has memorable, melodious material. Ansermet, renowned for his meticulous attention to the detail of scores, delivers a commanding performance of clarity and eloquence. The opening movement is curiously marked, ‘Introduction and Overture - Modéré’. It opens mystically with a woodwind chorale and tremolando strings leading to a lovely hymn-like melody. The main allegro section of this movement substantiates the description of Magnard as the ‘French Bruckner’. The infectious jollity of the second movement, marked Danses – Trčs vif is irresistible. It has an underlying musette-like drone and an unassuming rustic charm. Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances come to mind as well as something of Bizet’s L’Arlésienne. The slow movement Pastorale, is no idyll; its cor anglais reverie is interrupted by the gruff foreboding of the double-bass. The long-arched string tune - Bruckner-like again - that follows is also beset by storminess and the movement ends quite unsettlingly. The finale opens with a carillon and recaps material from the preceding movements. It ends in life-affirming, triumphal mood. 

A vivid, graphic Faust Symphony plus one of the very few recordings of the lovely Magnard Third Symphony make this a bargain not to be missed.

By the way: Romande is the French-speaking region of Switzerland, centred around Geneva where the orchestra is based.

Ian Lace


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