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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Dante Symphony
Dante Sonata*

Berlin Radio Chorus
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim (conductor; piano*)
Rec February 1992 (Symphony), Schauspielhaus, Berlin, July 1985 (Sonata), Neues Schloß, Bayreuth. DDD
WARNER ELATUS 2564 61780-2 [66.33]

It is all too easy to accept received wisdom and ignore Liszt’s achievement as a virtuoso equivalent of Paganini at the keyboard. In truth he was a prolific composer whose artistic endeavours mark him as one of the most important musicians of all time, and arguably as the most central figure in 19th century music.

There are discoveries in plenty for the discerning listener, and the Dante Symphony is one of them. So is the rather better known Dante Sonata, from the Années de Pélerinage. Make no mistake, these both rank as major masterpieces. Appearing as conductor in the symphony and as pianist in the sonata, Daniel Barenboim makes his mark as a leading advocate of Liszt’s cause. He certainly performs both works with the utmost dedication and conviction.

There is surely no finer recorded version of the Dante Symphony than this live recording from Berlin in 1992. The recorded sound is truthful and has a well balanced perspective, though in terms of richness of tone it is far from spectacular.

The opening phase can easily sound too vulgar, but Barenboim judges matters to perfection, with carefully articulated phrasing and secure pacing. The motto ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here’ is given forth orchestrally in a solemn and powerful pronouncement. As the performance progresses, so the refined playing of the Berlin Philharmonic brings dividend upon dividend. It was Wagner who suggested to Liszt that the concluding section of the Dante Symphony should become more inward, with ‘noble and softly soaring music’ preceding the rather fuller tones of the Magnificat coda for women’s voices. And the radiance of the vision is palpable.

While this is a live recording, the impeccable behaviour of the audience means that there are no unwanted extraneous noises.

Barenboim’s performance of the Dante Sonata was not recorded at a live performance but in an empty Neues Schloß at Bayreuth. The sound is warmly resonant, the recorded perspective rather close. The results are impressive, even if the climaxes can seem larger than life. Barenboim is a sensitive and committed pianist in this repertoire, and he makes the most of the extremes of contrast the piece contains. Therefore the pounding passage-work or the filigree light-textured aspects of this remarkable piece are both experienced to compelling effect.

Terry Barfoot


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