Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
A Faust Symphony (1854-57) [70:06]
Alexander Young (tenor)
Beecham Choral Society
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Beecham
rec. 14 November 1956, Royal Festival Hall, London
SOMM-BEECHAM 25 [70:06]
When it came to the music of Liszt, Beecham made recordings of Orpheus, Psalm XIII and A Faust Symphony. This disc enshrines the conductor’s first public performance of the last named work. A week after this Royal Festival Hall event he gave a broadcast performance of it with the BBC Symphony and the same choral forces as here, and Alexander Young once again. He was to record it in 1958.
Graham Melville-Mason doesn’t have quite so much to say in his booklet notes about Beecham, Liszt and this work, and its performance, perhaps because there is really less to say than in the case of other releases in this series. It’s very much a case of fact, which is fair enough.
The RFH sound is so-so. It never falls below acceptable but seldom really impresses, and remains somewhat opaque. Nevertheless the performance is a fine one, not immaculate it’s true - one feels the players slightly tiring before the end - but full of personality, caprice, sentiment and a true symphonic sweep even when Liszt’s inspiration is not at its most elevated. Foremost amongst the pleasures is the fabled RPO wind choir, and they make telling and narratively important contributions throughout this lengthy work. One feels the taut grip of Beecham’s control at around 15:00 into the opening Faust movement where the sense of lassitude and stasis are also subtly intimated. The thinning strings and questioning winds, the running pizzicato, these are all fine, assured examples of Beecham’s reading of the score.
The refinement of the winds too is palpable in Gretchen. Here there is plenty of allure and charm, an appealingly curvaceous spinning of the line from the gallant maestro. And in the Mephistophelean movement there is an appropriate whiff of something sulphurous, sinewy string etching and a rugged fugato, and a hothouse atmosphere. All of which leads on to the Chorus mysticus that Liszt added in 1857 in which Young and the chorus are strongly present. There is fire and power here. Young is committed and strong, managing to resist at one point a slight fracture or buckle in his line. The work ends in tense splendour.
That said, its constituency will be adherents of the conductor, because of the obviously specialist nature of the undertaking. His commercial recording is better recorded. Nevertheless one can enjoy the frisson of an earlier live performance in this inscription, secure in the knowledge that its tension meter is set high.
Jonathan Woolf
The frisson of a live performance with tension set high.