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.
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.