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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
A Faust Symphony (1857)
(i) Faust [30:16]; (ii) Gretchen [23:19]; (iii) Mephistopheles [25:58]
Kenneth Riegel (tenor)
Tanglewood Festival Chorus
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
rec. Symphony Hall, Boston, 26 July 1976. ADD
Directed by Humphrey Burton
Picture format NTSC 4:3; Sound Formats PCM Stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1; Region Code 0; Disc Format DVD 9; subtitles in English, French, German and Spanish
EUROARTS 2072078 [83:00]

When Bernstein gave this concert performance in Boston - his home town - in 1976 he had known the work for over three decades. He was at a professional peak and a personal nadir due to the break-up of his marriage. Around this time he set down a studio version for DG with the same forces which I have not heard but which has a high reputation.
Liszt's Faust Symphony has the subtitle "in three character portraits after Goethe" -  it does not describe the action but the nature of the principal characters. Bernstein's reading of the work is nevertheless intensely dramatic. By the stopwatch it is also a slow one in all three movements, lasting about 80 minutes in comparison with the 70 and 67 minutes of Beecham (EMI) and Horenstein (Vox) respectively, both dating from the 1950s.
Bernstein envisioned each of the three movements in one long sweep and conjured some impressively concentrated, refined and precise playing from the BSO. The woodwinds in particular were superb and, despite the timings, the music never dragged and nor do the tempi actually seem slow. On the podium Bernstein was magnetic and magisterial, and he got his fair share of attention from the cameramen. Yet there was no sense that Bernstein was anything other than at the service of the music - it's all Liszt rather than Lenny.
The first movement depicted the many facets of Faust himself. At the climaxes brass contributions were telling but not overwhelming, reflecting a sound-picture well balanced by conductor and engineers.
This Gretchen was tender indeed, her main theme beautifully presented on the oboe. There is a chamber feel to much of the music and, rightly, just a little passion was held in reserve until the central section when Liszt strayed from his objective and depicted the lovers together.
One might have expected Bernstein to have been in his element in Mephistopheles and so it proved as he impulsively drove the music forward while maintaining a steady basic pulse. The choral setting of Alles vergängliche emerged naturally and effectively at the end. Tenor Kenneth Riegel sang most affectingly from within the chorus at the back of the hall, capping a very fine show from all the performers.
All-in-all, I feel this performance betters Beecham's marvellous studio recording by some margin and Horenstein was a fair distance behind that. The picture and sound quality are about what one would expect of the last few of years of the pre-digital age when transferred to DVD video. The notes are a bit thin and the only extras are some trailers for other DVDs and subtitles. But to have this stupendous one-off occasion preserved so effectively is enough. Without doubt this is the most compelling orchestral DVD I have yet experienced. And I am sure I would be happy to listen to it with the television switched off. If you are looking for a version of Liszt's greatest orchestral work, I suspect you may struggle to find something better than this in any format.
Patrick C Waller


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