Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
A Symphony to Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’, S109 (1855-6) [49:33]
Après une lecture de Dante (Fantasia quasi Sonata), S 161/7 No. 7 from Années de pèlerinage, Deuxième Année - Italie (1837-49)* [16:18].
Daniel Barenboim (piano)*
Damenchor des Rundfunkchors Berlin
Berliner Philharmoniker/Daniel Barenboim
rec. (Symphony): live at Schauspielhaus, Berlin, February 1992; (Sonata): Neues Schloss, Bayreuth, July 1985.
WARNER CLASSICS APEX 2564 673012 [66:33]

This is a reissue on the Apex bargain label but that’s no excuse for the accompanying scant 4 page leaflet. It offers no detail about the Symphony, only the movement markings and the words of the Magnificat that form the finale. Thankfully there is ample information available on the Internet.

Liszt's original idea was for a three-movement work: one each for Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. When Wagner persuaded him that it would be impossible faithfully to express the bliss of Paradise, Liszt dropped the third movement but added a choral Magnificat at the end of the second. This revision has divided commentators. Some feel that the Magnificat does not fit comfortably into the structure. It leaves a feeling of incompleteness which might explain why the work has not found an enduring place in the repertoire.

The darkly disturbing opening movement is supposed to be a musical rendition of the words inscribed over the gates of Hell: Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. Barenboim’s urgent reading is turbulent indeed; it screws up the tension until it becomes almost unbearable; it is devilishly evocative of ghastly inextinguishable devouring flames and endless torment. The fiery whirlwind eventually diminishes to focus on the tragic illicit love affair of Francesca and Paolo, the story that would later inspire Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov to pen Francesca da Rimini. Barenboim’s strings, flutes and harp underline the sweet cloying power of this forbidden love before retribution arrives and the damning flames lick unremittingly again. The movement ends with an intense peroration as lower brass and bass drum blare out their bleak condemnation. The Purgatorio is Liszt in correspondingly calm and pensive mood as Dante passes from the terrifying Inferno into the relatively blissful Purgatory. The composer utilises a reverent fugue largely based on the descending melodic motif from the first movement. After women's voices beautifully intone the final Magnificat, the movement ends ethereally.

Barenboim’s reading which garnered much praise from the critics could hardly be bettered.

The coupling of the Symphony with the Dante Sonata is an obvious but adroit choice and it allows Barenboim’s to show off his versatility. The Dante Sonata is the 7th piece in Liszt’s piano works collection: Années de pèlerinage, Deuxième Année – Italie. Considered to be not only "the crowning achievement" of the group it is also thought to be one of the most demanding pieces in the standard repertoire. Its programme is very similar to the Dante Symphony – its first section said to depict the anguished wailing of souls in hell, Barenboim in fiery attack; the second part, the joy of souls in Heaven, is a chorale in F-sharp major, Barenboim gently beatific.

A welcome reissue of a very exciting reading: Liszt at full diabolical throttle.

Ian Lace

A welcome reissue of a very exciting reading: Liszt at full diabolical throttle.