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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
A Faust Symphony:-

Part One - Faust [28:42];
Part Two - Gretchen [21:17]
Part Three - Mephistopheles [23:29]
John Aler (tenor)
Mužský Sbor Sl’ovenskej Fil’harmonie, Bratislava

Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra/James Conlon
Recorded in De Doelen, Rotterdam, November 1983
WARNER APEX 2564 61 460-2 [73:43]


Here is a cracking performance of Liszt’s greatest orchestral work. James Conlon has managed to create a sense of momentum that carries the listener through the undoubted longueurs of the weaker parts of the symphony, and, most importantly, allows the finale to acquire a true sense of culmination.

The work consists of musical portraits of the three principal characters of Goethe’s drama – Faust himself, magician-scientist; Gretchen, the woman whom he loves, and who in this version brings about his redemption; and Mephistopheles, the Devil incarnate, who persuades Faust to sell him his soul. The Faust section is a free and fully developed sonata structure, full of mystery, passion and bombast. Part Two, Gretchen, is the slow movement, characterised by delicate scoring – an oboe presents the main theme, accompanied by a solo viola – and a touching simplicity of utterance. For Mephistopheles, Liszt, at first not sure how to portray this spirit in music, was inspired by Goethe’s description of the character as "der Geist, der stets verneint" – "the spirit that negates", and who represents, in other words, the dark, negative side of Faust’s own personality. This gave Liszt the idea of parodying all Faust’s themes from the first movement, which he does successfully, though perhaps leaning a little too heavily on ‘devilish’ trills after Tartini by way of Berlioz’s Witches’ Sabbath.

I described it above as an orchestral work, and so it was originally. But, some three years after the first performance, Liszt added the coda for men’s chorus and solo tenor, with which it is always performed today. The text is the wonderful Chorus Mysticus, the closing words of Goethe’s Faust, which Mahler set at the end of his massive 8th Symphony. The sublime Mahler is in a different world from Liszt’s setting; yet the earlier composer does rise to the challenge, and I’ve always felt this to be the finest part of the work. The phrases for the solo tenor, based on Gretchen’s music, are really very beautiful, and John Aler, the American tenor, sings them with appropriate lyricism, (and good intonation!).

In Part One, Conlon characterises Faust strongly, the tempi chosen expertly to allow the music space, yet ensure an urgent sense of forward movement. Textures are particularly finely balanced, and there is distinguished playing from every section of the Rotterdam orchestra. In Gretchen, I would have liked Conlon to linger more lovingly here and there, but this again is a very long, episodic movement, and he undoubtedly gives it an overall coherence, without hurrying unduly.

The finale is just as successful, though the men of the Bratislava choir do struggle somewhat against the powerful orchestration . Their voices are good, the blend is excellent – you just feel there needed to be rather more of them.

The recording is of high quality, and the heady Romantic drama of Liszt’s music comes across vividly. There are several splendid versions of this piece in the catalogue – principally Barenboim, Bernstein, and a particularly fine one from Rattle and the BPO – but at bargain price, this is very much worthy of consideration.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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