Whilst not amongst the top rank, L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
under its principal conductor, Ernest Ansermet, gained an enviable
reputation for its acclaimed recordings - notably of the music
of Debussy and Ravel. Ansermet was respected for the clarity and
transparency of his readings and for his meticulous attention
to composers’ score markings.
number of composer’s works including Eine Faust-Symphonie
were inspired by the Goethe’s diabolical creation, notably
Berlioz – and, later, Gounod. Indeed Liszt had already begun
work on a piece based on the Faust legend in the 1840s but it
remained tentative until he heard Berlioz’s Damnation of
Faust - itself dedicated to Liszt - in Weimar. Liszt then
began work in earnest basing his symphony on three character
sketches of the story’s three protagonists: Faust, Gretchen
(Marguerite in some versions) and Mephistopheles with a finale
tacked on. Really this is less a symphony than a collection
of symphonic poems, not far removed from Les Préludes
and Mazeppa. The original version was first performed
in the presence of both Berlioz and Wagner. Criticism prompted
him to add trumpets, trombones and percussion as well as a final
chorus based on the Chorus Mysticus in the finale of
Part II of Goethe’s play. The premiere of this revised version
took place in 1861 conducted by Liszt himself. It is dedicated
to Berlioz. Liszt added another 16 bars to the slow movement
27-minute opening movement Faust is a multi-dimensional
character study. No less than five main themes (or leitmotifs)
are stated, each assigned to different character traits. All
these themes are constantly transformed to indicate Faust in
various contexts and emotional states. A slow introduction indicates
his mystical side, the second with an oboe solo represents his
emotional state, whether passionate, amorous or melancholy.
A turbulent third theme is heard on strings, then on woodwinds
to depict Faust as lover as the fourth theme. Finally a quasi-noble,
assertive theme in E flat is heard on brass to indicate Faust
as man-of-action. Ansermet brings excitement and tenderness
in full measure to this intense music.
as one might expect elicits a far more tender approach and as
Greg Keane remarks in his erudite notes for this release,
the movement epitomizes Liszt’s idealized concept of womanhood.
As such the scoring is light and intimate, quite chamber music-like
in its sonority - particularly at around 11:00.
Again quoting Keane, “Gretchen herself is represented by a duet
between oboe and viola, suggesting both beguiling innocence
and trepidation in the face of temptation.” Faust’s entrance
is indicated by brass and low tremolando strings plus
Faust’s amorous oboe theme from the first movement, that interrupts
her gentle reveries. She is clearly urged towards passion as
her second theme heard on strings and marked dolce amoroso
indicates. Mephistopheles brings out all of Liszt’s
trade-mark diabolical musical figures. The music is quicksilver,
fast-moving and filled with sardonic wit – well they always
said the Devil has the best tunes. Again quoting Keane, “Mephistopheles
is seen as the negation of all humanity, a purely destructive
force and generates no new music of his own … Gretchen’s themes
are heard intact, unsullied by Mephistopheles whereas Faust’s
various themes are fragmented, parodied and distorted continually
in a travesty of the first movement.” Liszt introduces into
his coda a choir and tenor solo - Krenn nicely tender and sincere
in his supplication - to achieve the celestial effect of an
apotheosis as the soul of Gretchen/Marguerite is saved from
orchestra deliver a polished and tremendously thrilling performance
of Liszt’s orchestral masterpiece.
from Lenau’s Faust. These two atmospheric works were inspired by the Austrian poet Lenau’s
version of the Faust legend. Lenau was the pseudonym of Nikolaus
Franz Niembsch another melancholy romantic. In this version
Faust and Mephistopheles interrupt a wedding feast at an inn.
Faust dances with the bride, seduces her and carries her off
into the woods to spend her wedding night in wild debauchery.
At the end, they are damned for eternity for their immorality.
Above the ending, Liszt quotes Lenau’s last line – “and they
drowned in an ocean of their lust”. Dance at the Village Inn (Mephisto Waltz No. 1)
is much the better known of the two episodes. It has
been recorded a number of times notably by Leopold Stokowski
on a BBC mono issue - BBCL 4059-2 and by Fritz Reiner with the
Chicago Symphony Orchestra on RCA. Ansermet offers a thrilling,
characterful alternative that, if it isn’t quite as tense or
as sexy as Reiner’s reading, it nevertheless offers a greater
depth of malignance and mordant, satanic wit. Nocturnal
Procession is much less well-known. It is a beautiful
nocturnal pastoral evocation with extraordinarily beautiful
writing for strings and woodwinds. One can imagine the flight
to the woods by the couple to the sounds of nature. It is intense
and passionate too with a hint of supernatural menace and church
bells. A note of piety serves as a contrast and perhaps as a
warning. Nocturnal Procession makes demands of orchestral
virtuosity to which OSR rises with dedication and aplomb.
Hunnenschlacht (Battle of the Huns). This rarely performed Liszt symphonic
poem was inspired by a painting by Wilhelm von Kaulbach of a
battle between the Romans and the Visigoths in 451AD. Of the
opening allegro tempestuoso Liszt demanded that
“the entire colour should be kept dark and all instruments must
sound like ghosts”. The whole work bears all the familiar Liszt
fingerprints: urgent pacing, tempestuous excitement, staccato
blasts and hammerings, noble, patriotic fanfares and evocations
of battlefield chaos. Amongst all the bombast, a solo organ
and mournful strings, sounds an elegiac tone. The piece ends
in a glorious hymn of victory with brass shouting and cymbals
clashing. A pattern for 1812?
is a quirky fact that Alberic Magnard is one of those composers
best remembered for the circumstances of his death – he died,
shot, defending his country house north of Paris
against advancing Germans in 1914. Magnard was born into a distinguished
literary family, his father became editor of Le Figaro. He
studied at the Paris Conservatoire and later transferred to
the Schola Cantorum where he was influenced by César Franck
and Vincent D’Indy. He later taught counterpoint there himself.
his credit, Ansermet chose to record Magnard’s Third Symphony
at a time when out-of-the-way scores were practically ignored.
In fact it was, for many years, the only recording of any work
by Magnard. This is a shame because this Symphony is very approachable
and has memorable, melodious material. Ansermet, renowned for
his meticulous attention to the detail of scores, delivers a
commanding performance of clarity and eloquence. The opening
movement is curiously marked, ‘Introduction and Overture - Modéré’.
It opens mystically with a woodwind chorale and tremolando strings
leading to a lovely hymn-like melody. The main allegro section
of this movement substantiates the description of Magnard as
the ‘French Bruckner’. The infectious jollity of the second
movement, marked Danses – Trčs vif is irresistible. It
has an underlying musette-like drone and an unassuming rustic
charm. Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances come to mind as well as
something of Bizet’s L’Arlésienne. The slow movement
Pastorale, is no idyll; its cor anglais reverie
is interrupted by the gruff foreboding of the double-bass. The
long-arched string tune - Bruckner-like again - that follows
is also beset by storminess and the movement ends quite unsettlingly.
The finale opens with a carillon and recaps material from the
preceding movements. It ends in life-affirming, triumphal mood.
vivid, graphic Faust Symphony plus one of the very few
recordings of the lovely Magnard Third Symphony make this a
bargain not to be missed.
the way: Romande is the French-speaking region of Switzerland, centred around Geneva where the orchestra is based.