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A Faust Symphony (sound recording)

af Franz Liszt

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  VPALib | Mar 6, 2019 |
Franz Liszt (1811–1886)

A Faust Symphony

I: Faust
[1] Lento assai – Allegro impetuoso – Allegro agitato ed appassionato assai
II: Gretchen [20.05]
[2] Andante soave
III: Mephistopheles
[3] Allegro vivace, ironico [16.04]
[4] Andante mistico (Apotheosis)* [5.55]

Peter Seiffert, tenor*
Herren des Ernst-Senff-Chores*
Herren des Prager Philharmonischen Chores*
Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Live recording: 15.-17.IV.1994, Philharmonie, Berlin.

EMI Classics, 1994. 68.49. Liner notes by Lionel Salter.


If this recording is listenable at all, this is because it was made only five years after Karajan’s death when the Berlin Philharmonic still was the magnificent instrument he had honed for 35 years. This is why the orchestral sound, if not EMI’s somewhat arid sonics, is impressive. But this, of course, is not enough. The Faust Symphony is not a work to be played by a conductorless orchestra. Well, this is more or less the case here. Simon Rattle, then only 39 years old and hardly suspecting eight years later he would succeed Claudio Abbado at the helm, gives the impression of not being on the rostrum at all. The performance sounds like a first run-through at a rehearsal. The mighty climaxes in the first movement could have been conducted by Karajan’s ghost, but even he would have made them less sloppy. The delicate chamber textures of “Gretchen” are largely lost, even if the woodwind solos are ravishing. In the final movement Sir Simon does give a few signs of actually waking up – but before he succeeds the movement is over. The choir is excellent, but Seiffert’s tenor is colourless, strained and hard to endure. The sound is decent without being in any way exceptional. Lionel Salter’s liner notes are profoundly superficial, even inaccurate. For example, he dares perpetuate the old myth that Joachim Raff at least partly orchestrated some of Liszt’s early symphonic poems, whereas in truth Raff worked merely as a copyist whose influence was limited to an occasional suggestion on instrumentation, if that.* In short, if this happens to be your introduction to the Faust Symphony, by all means don’t make it your only encounter. Only four years later Barenboim achieved much better results with the same orchestra; there are plenty of other choices as well.

*We know that Liszt asked Raff to prepare a fair copy of a somewhat different version than the first draft of the Symphony completed in October 1854. This must have been one of Raff's last orders before Liszt dispensed with his services. (The fair copy has not survived.) In September 1855 Liszt prepared yet another draft and rehearsed it with the Weimar orchestra. Revisions continued until 1857, when the Symphony was given its first complete performance, as well as in later years. See The Liszt Companion, ed. Ben Arnold, Greenwood, 2002, p. 262. ( )
1 stem Waldstein | Feb 6, 2018 |
Franz Liszt (1811–1886)

Eine Faust-Symphonie

in drei Charakterbildern nach Goethe

[1] I. Faust – Lento assai [30’01’’]
[2] II. Gretchen – Andante soave [19’10’’]
[3] III. Mephistopheles – Allegro vivace, ironico [16’48’’]
[4] Andante mistico* [5’45’’]

Plácido Domingo, tenor*
Chor der Deutschen Staatsoper Berlin*
Berliner Philharmoniker
Daniel Barenboim

Recorded: March & June 1998, Philharmonie, Berlin.

Teldec, 1999. 71’42’’. Anonymous liner notes.


I am happy to report I have changed my largely negative opinion of this recording. If it doesn’t quite live up to Barenboim’s Dante Symphony (Teldec, 1992), I am willing to put this to the much stronger competition. In the Digital Era alone, Muti (EMI, 1983) and Solti (Decca, 1986) are formidable rivals. But Barenboim is certainly not “dullness personified” or “sleepwalking”, as my more immature self asserted some years ago. He holds each of the three gigantic movements with a fine sense for the right tempo and, what is more important, the right way to change the tempo. He has a delicate ear for the right touch of orchestral colour and the right way to handle a long melodic line. In short, he is right in every way. Perhaps his “Mephistopheles” could use a little bite and his “Faust” a little dynamite in the big moments, but I have heard – and haven’t changed my opinion about so far – a lot duller performances by equally famous names. The digital sound is clean, spacious and well-balanced; my only quibble is the final “chorus mysticus” where the orchestra tends to obscure the choir. Domingo is disappointing, adding past-his-prime screaming to his curious German diction. But he is not alone there. Many tenors have butchered the deceptively simple line to which Liszt set Goethe’s feministic “Das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan”. The less said about the childish cover and the superficial liner notes, the better. But Barenboim’s Faustian ideas are worth exploring and well recorded. He is a top contender in modern (i.e. digital) sound, easily eclipsing the likes of Dorati, Sinopoli and Chailly, not to mention Rattle who achieved much less memorable results with the same orchestra just a few years earlier. ( )
1 stem Waldstein | Feb 3, 2018 |
Franz Liszt (1811–1886)

A Faust Symphony, S. 108

in three character portraits (after Goethe)

[1] I. Faust [29’41]
[2] II. Gretchen (Marguerite) [23’02]
[3] III. Mephistopheles – Final Chorus [24’18]

Kenneth Riegel, tenor
Tanglewood Festival Chorus
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Bernstein

Recorded live at the Symphony Hall, Boston, 26 July 1976.

Directed by Humphrey Burton.

Unitel, 2006. DVD. NTSC 4:3. PCM Stereo / DD 5.1 / DTS 5.1. 83 min. Region Code: 0 (Worldwide). Subtitles (Eng+Ger+Fr). Liner notes by Richard Evidon.


This video recording features absolutely the same performers and was recorded at the same time as the famous audio version for DG. In his part of the liner notes to the CD, recording engineer Günter Hermanns even mentions, rather casually, that he is not sure whether some part of the live recording didn’t end up in the studio production. If the Tonmeister himself is not sure, then who is? No matter. (By the way, one Aaron Baron is listed as a sound engineer for the video production.) This is a review of the DVD, though some comparisons with the CD are inevitable.

To begin with, the picture is much too dark. It also is grainy and drab, almost colourless. One is surely wise not to expect anything spectacular from a 1976 video – but compare the quality of this picture, or lack of such, with Karajan’s video concerts from the same period and the difference is shocking. Yet the picture is simply marvellous in comparison with the sound. It is horrible, a great deal worse than the one on the CD, which is bad enough anyway. All defects of the latter are here amplified: lack of detail, dismally limited dynamic range, weak climaxes, shoddy woodwinds and even shoddier brass, thin and vapid strings. Even Humphrey Burton, ordinarily a fine director, does not seem in top form, indulging in awkward group shots and sometimes altogether parting company with the music. The sordid interior of Boston Symphony Hall only makes the whole fiasco worse.

Since the Faust Symphony is such a rarity on DVD*, every Lisztian ought to have this one in his collection. It is fun to watch from to time, but it is a major musical and visual disappointment nonetheless for that. Its best feature remains Lenny’s trademark dancing on the rostrum: one of the most hilarious phenomena I have ever seen and one of best anti-depressants I have ever tried.

*I know of only two other DVD versions. The 70th Birthday Jubilee of Neeme Jarvi with the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra I have never heard. But I certainly don’t recommend the recently released live recording of Christian Thielemann and Dresden Staatskapelle. ( )
1 stem Waldstein | Feb 1, 2018 |
Franz Liszt (1811–1886)

A Faust Symphony, S. 108

in three character portraits (after Goethe)

[1] I. Faust [27:29]
[2] II. Gretchen (Marguerite) [20:51]
[3] III. Mephistopheles [15:55]
[4] “Chorus mysticus”* [6:55]

Charles Bressler, tenor*
Choral Art Society*
New York Philharmonic
Leonard Bernstein

Recorded: November 7, 1960, New York City, USA.

Sony Classical, 2011. TT 71:10. Original LP cover and liner notes. DSD (Direct Stream Digital) remastered.


Though still flawed and not terribly convincing, Lenny’s 1960 recording with the New York Philharmonic on Columbia/SONY is certainly superior to his inexplicably celebrated 1976 remake with the Boston Symphony on DG. The earlier recording is considerably leaner and tauter, much better paced and much less fragmented than the nearly incoherent patchwork 16 years later.

The main problem with this recording, surprisingly enough, is the same as with the later one: lack of Romantic rhetoric (in the best sense of this often misunderstood phrase). This may seem surprising as Bernstein is notoriously passionate and even flamboyant musician, but it is nonetheless true. I wish Lenny had let his hair down with Liszt at least as much as he did in many of his other recordings from those golden years with the New York Philharmonic (his engaging Tchaikovsky, for instance, not to mention his apocalyptic Gershwin). The Faust Symphony would have much the better for the same approach. As it is now, the recording suffers from timid climaxes more suitable to Bach than to Liszt. However, the more lyrical pages – the whole of “Gretchen”, the repetition of her theme in the finale, the solo trumpet and a few moments more in the first movement – are sensitively played and exquisitely beautiful.

The Choral Arts Society is excellent and so is the tenor Charles Bressler, even if the latter could use a stronger voice. The remastered sound is quite good if not really excellent. It’s rather dry, somewhat lacking in depth and sonority, though fantastically clean; on the whole, an impressive achievement for 1960.

The edition attempts an exact reproduction of the original LP: cover, liner notes, the CD itself, everything. We are conscientiously informed that the LP was released in 1964 and included an omitted on this disc recording of Les Preludes (1963). The booklet contains only the original liner notes, a most indifferent, prejudiced and smartly uncredited essay; it appears also on the back cover where it is reproduced in its original LP layout (smallish but still readable).

On the whole, Lenny’s 1960 take with the NYP, despite a curious lack of involvement, is a charming curiosity that will bear an occasional listen. Lisztians should have the recording at least because of the eminence of the performers, if not for any extraordinary insight into the score. Liszt neophytes could do far worse with their introduction (try Chailly and Rattle for some of the most amazingly vapid recordings of this masterpiece).

Lenny was wise not to record much Liszt during his vastly successful career as a conductor. Both his recordings of Faust, and that of Les Preludes for that matter, are interesting rather than compelling. Perhaps his attitude stood in the way of more exhilarating and insightful interpretations. He once called the Faust Symphony Liszt’s one true masterpiece. Nonsense, of course. Masterpieces do not happen by accident. There is no such thing as a composer with one masterpiece. Either Liszt composed many, or his Faust is not. ( )
1 stem Waldstein | Feb 1, 2018 |
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