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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Symphony [#2] on Dante’s Divine Comedy, S. 109 (LW G14) (1856) [43.20]
Symphonic Poem #2, "Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo," S. 96 (LW G2) (1849) [21.16]
London Oratory School Schola, Michael McCarthy, director
London Symphony Orchestra/Leon Botstein
Recorded at Watford Town Hall, Watford, England, 17 January 2003
Notes in English. Three page SACD catalogue listing.
CD tracks, 2.0 stereo. SACD tracks, 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround sound.
Playable on CD players and SACD players [hybrid]
TELARC SACD 60613 [64.36]

Comparison recordings

S 109, Varujan Kojian, Utah SO [incl. Paradiso frag.] Varèse Sarabande VCD 47207
S 109, Kurt Masur, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra [ADD] EMI 68598
S 109, Kurt Masur, LGO [North America only] [ADD] MHS 52257W
S 96, Árpád Joó, Budapest SO [complete tone poems] Brilliant Classics 029421

Liszt’s Second Symphony has not become popular, and it may be said to be the least appreciated of his major symphonic works. The first performance was a fiasco, but a second performance in Prague was very successful. It is an attempt to write music with virtually no identifiable motifs, no tunes, just moods. The "Inferno" movement interprets the words Dante found inscribed over the gates of Hell, and can be expected to wander anchorless through tonalities and sonorities organised around melodic fragments which are generally not developed, just repeated in slighting shifting colours, all dark and odorous. "Purgatorio" begins with thinner, tentatively despairing sounds.* At about six minutes in we begin a tired-sounding fugue, one of Liszt’s best and longest but on a curiously non-memorable pattern of notes which then grows in optimism and dramatic import. The movement gradually coalesces into a magnificat for boys’ chorus and finishes quietly after an hallelujah.

The rarely played "Paradiso" finale is then a brief triumphant chorale fanfare coda, somewhat abbreviated (54 seconds long) in view of the length of the first two movements. Surely this is merely a sketch for what Liszt must have intended to be a much longer movement. Liszt faced the impossibility of writing interesting music about perfect bliss and, on Wagner’s advice, withdrew it to leave the work as we now most often hear it - in two movements.

The Masur recording remains clearly the best both in terms of sound and performance. Masur’s orchestra is massive and menacing, with thrillingly clear massed double-basses and aggressive brass. Given the mood of the music, a little roughness in the brass and percussion actually contributes positively. Masur’s chorus is the legendary Leipzig Thomanerchor. Kojian is a close second. He receives brighter digital recording that emphasises high strings and brass and reduces the impact of the double-basses. Turning up the bass control helps this recording considerably and brings out the terrific bass drum accents. Kojian’s mood is definitely lighter and more heroic throughout. His chorus is the larger Utah Chorale and surely contains female voices to stabilise the sound.

Botstein’s performance of the Symphony is by comparison curiously subdued, the most distantly miked of all, with good orchestral detail, but conservative dynamic range. The very first Telarc recording, a direct-to-disk LP, featured compressed dynamics. Apparently this is a demon not yet completely exorcised from the Telarc aesthetic. The double-basses have almost no growl, even on the SACD tracks, and this is not compensated for by a slight improvement in transparency and lower distortion in the cymbals and trumpets. The violins have at appropriate times a nice sense of expectancy, and — legends or no — the boys’ chorus and soloist are the best. The CD tracks are better than on some Telarc Hybrid SACDs and decode nicely in your Dolby Digital surround sound decoder.

In contrast, Botstein’s Tasso is richly and dynamically performed and recorded, perhaps partly because the work itself is more conventionally tuneful. Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo, Symphonic Poem #2, was conceived as an overture to Goethe’s play "Torquato Tasso". Liszt was also inspired by Byron’s "Lament of Tasso". As the title suggests, the work is a depiction of the deepest of despair and depression followed by the wildest paranoiac ecstasy of total victory, and it makes a good "third movement" to the Symphony. This must have been Eduard Hanslick’s favourite Liszt since it comes closest to making his case. Here the problem is not expressiveness, but reserve, keeping some sense of proportion, particularly in the over-the-top finale which set a new standard of orchestral bombast. Masur [DDD] fails the test and falls into crude banality. Árpád Joó’s innocent sincerity carries him through brilliantly, and he receives excellent (cd) recording. There is a CD [ADD] version by George Solti that is also exceptional.

*including a nice section in the strings that Jerry Goldsmith used so effectively in the "Star Trek: the Motion Picture" film score.

Paul Shoemaker


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