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Franz LISZT (1811-1886) A Faust Symphony in Three Character Sketches, S.108 (1857)
Steve Davislim (tenor)
Chorus Sine Nomine
Orchester Wiener Akademie/Martin Haselböck
rec. October 2014/September 2016, Franz Liszt Hall, Lisztzentrum Raiding, Austria ALPHA 475 [68:20]
After Franz Liszt retired from the concert stage at the age of thirty-five, he moved to Weimar to devote himself to composition. There he wrote most of his best-known orchestral works, including the Faust Symphony. He composed this piece for the festivities associated with the completion of a monument to Goethe and Schiller and the centenary of Grand Duke Carl August, Goethe’s patron.
Liszt does not attempt to tell the story of Faust through music. Instead, his symphony consists of three “character sketches.” The opening ‘Faust’ movement explores Faust’s doubts and restless passions. ‘Gretchen’ portrays a less complex person in a simple ABA form. ‘Mephistopheles’ reconfigures earlier themes, often in satanic ways, ending in a grand burst of mysticism from tenor and chorus. Liszt’s approach to Goethe’s play is analogous to how he handled the operas upon which he based some of his most dazzling piano pieces, such as his “reminiscences” of Norma, Don Giovanni, or Lucretia Borgia – don’t get bogged down in a story’s narrative, but use music to explore its essential elements, and the emotional, dramatic implications.
Liszt stretched the definition of a symphony in this enormous work, which in many respects prefigures Mahler by more than three decades. Enthusiasts call it expansive or lavish, skeptics are more inclined to regard it as sprawling or undisciplined. I confess to imagining that a little editing might make this a more popular work by enabling the best parts to shine, but that temporary heresy is not in the spirit of Martin Haselböck’s goal of recreating the sound of Weimar.
Haselböck’s earlier issues of original-instrument Liszt have been well generally received by several of my colleagues at Musicweb International (review ~ review ~ review). Liszt’s Weimar orchestra had around 45 members, sometimes supplemented as needed. The 55 musicians in the Vienna Academy Orchestra use old instruments, sometimes the same ones blown by Liszt’s own players. But the old instruments are not an end, but rather a means to hearing Liszt afresh.
The reduced string forces bring forth the full color of the winds, one of the glories of this disc. The sound is less plush and less blended, and the musicians show greater agility than in a big-band performance. There remains plenty of string power for me, but then I also enjoy Thomas Dausgaard and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra in their ‘Opening Doors’ project of Nineteenth Century classics (review ~ review), which some listeners may find underpowered. The new, more exposed textures really do reveal a gentler side to Liszt’s symphony.
Haselböck is consistently engaging. He knows how to sustain tension, and to point up the dramatic bits while sliding over some of the weaknesses in the score. He restores the sense of adventure we know from Liszt’s great piano works, but which is often lost in orchestral pieces which can sometimes seem to hector the listener. The symphony’s structure still seems jerry-built, but it sustains inventive and often stirring, flamboyant music. Haselböck encourages his orchestra to swagger when need be, but also to sing sweetly. Tempi are a little swifter than most, and the flowing pace for the ‘Gretchen’ movement really helps. Tenor Steve Davislim is quite good in his part at the symphony’s conclusion. However, as closing words, “the eternal feminine leads us on high” reminds us of the distance between Liszt’s times and our own.
If you are at all curious about how Liszt’s music might have sounded when new, by all means try this very satisfying performance of the Faust Symphony. At the end of Haselböck’s caring and energetic performance, I no longer feel as if Liszt’s orchestra has been weaponized and deployed against me.