Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
A Faust Symphony - in three character portraits (after Goethe) (1854-57 rev.1880) [71:10]
Charles Bressler (tenor)
Choral Art Society
New York Philharmonic/Leonard Bernstein
rec. New York, 1964
SONY 88697857572 [71:10]

This is a welcome DSD reissue of an acclaimed recording first issued on Columbia Masterworks LP M2S-699.

A later Leonard Bernstein performance of this important large-scale work, again very well received, was recorded with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood Festival Chorus and Kenneth Riegel (tenor) in 1976. The Boston recording is the DVD (Euroarts 2072078) recorded live at Symphony Hall, Boston on 26 July 1976. I will compare these performances.

Liszt’s indulgent and weighty Faust Symphony lies in a direct line between Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and the Late-Romanticism of Wagner (Tristan und Isolde) and Richard Strauss (Don Juan); not to mention the many composers they influenced. An extension of that line continues among the composers of Hollywood’s Golden Age including Franz Waxman’s Prince Valiant and even Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo music. It was they who preserved the traditions of the European Late-Romantic style against the atonal tide.

It was Berlioz who introduced the inspiration of Faust to his friend Liszt. Berlioz had composed his La damnation de Faust in 1846 only eight years earlier. Berlioz’s intensely dramatic composition followed the same indulgent style of his own Symphonie fantastique of 1830. Liszt was to follow suit with his view of Faust – wrought in the same melodramatic mould. His highly chromatic Faust music pushes towards the edge of atonality. Note the full title of this work; it is intended as a series of three character studies rather than a blow-by-blow account of Goethe’s narrative. So as not to weigh down this review, I recommend the very good essay on Wikipedia which goes into detail about the work’s inspiration including the Weimar connection, the Symphony’s structure and instrumentation, performance history and transcriptions.

The extensive first movement introduces many of the work’s themes and motifs that will appear in various guises throughout. Liszt utilises the process of thematic transformation to masterly effect. This portrait of Faust - which some observers have suggested is something of Liszt’s self-portrait - reflects Faust’s gloomy reveries in old age, his disappointments and regrets and, in the most exciting and passionate passages, his lusting after adventure, heroism and his thirst for sexual gratification. It’s all vividly sketched. The second movement is more serene, a portrait of Gretchen’s purity and innocence that turns to voluptuous yearning as the corrupting influence of Faust grows in her heart. The final portrait of Mephistopheles is sardonic and slippery sly. The music is tremendously exciting – a presto ride to damnation segueing into the choral finale with the loving spirit of the Eternal Female triumphant as proclaimed by choir and tenor soloist. A forceful organ pedal swell brings the work to a close.

Leonard Bernstein’s recordings of Liszt’s Faust Symphony 1964
I – Faust: Lento assai – Allegro impetuoso –
Allegro agitato ed appassionato assai
27:29 30:16
II - Gretchen: Andante soave 20:51 23:19
III - Mephistopheles and Final Chorus mysticus: Allegro vivace, ironic 22:50 25:58

With such a dynamic work as this there is no point in approaching it faint-heartedly. Bernstein lets it rip. His 1964 performance is delivered with white heat passion. It’s a crack performance with thrills that make the hair stand on end. The tiniest detail is as clear as a gnat’s kneecap in this digitally mastered Sony reissue. The only fly in the ointment, as far as this reviewer is concerned, is the rather odd nasally-sounding timbre of Charles Bressler’s voice. There are no such reservations about Kenneth Riegel in the later, 1976 performance which also has plenty of attack but is a little more expansive, allowing more detail to be heard through the complex texture. Also the DVD allows one to appreciate the instrumentation more. It is interesting to watch Bernstein’s animated conducting: the tense crouching, the springs, the leaps and all that emotion etched on his face. Yet the white heat roller-coaster thrills of the 1964 recording tip the balance for me.

Ian Lace

White heat roller-coaster thrills.