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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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