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Steve Davislim, Orchester Wiener Akademie, Martin Haselböck
Few works of classical music have been as momentous or as misunderstood as Liszt’s Faust Symphony. Premiered in Weimar in 1857 to inaugurate the Goethe–Schiller Monument, as if it wasn’t massive enough already, the composer revised his 75-minute musical monolith three years later, adding a Chorus Mysticus for male voices and tenor soloist to the finale ahead of a second performance.
Hans von Bülow, who conducted it from memory on that occasion, later turned on the work. “I have given that nonsense a thorough going-over! It’s sheer rubbish, absolute non-music! I don’t know which was greater, my horror or my disgust!” he declared sourly, though by then Liszt’s daughter Cosima had abandoned him for the charms of Richard Wagner – nuff said.
Though he pretended not to be, Wagner himself was hugely influenced by Liszt’s technique of thematic metamorphosis, a method reaches its apogee in this work. Cast in three movements – Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles – the opening motif representing Faust himself is the first known use of a whole 12 tone scale, half a decade before the doings of Schoenberg and his crew. But perhaps Liszt’s masterstroke is the way he invents no new themes for the devil, simply re-casting Faust’s music, an inspired decision of considerable psychological insight.
Over the years the symphony has fared well on record – Beecham, Bernstein and Ansermet all championed it – but it has remained a rarity in the concert hall, its length, forces and the enduring – and entirely unjustified – prejudice against Liszt the orchestral composer all weighing against it. This Orchester Wiener Akademie recording under Martin Haselböck is the first time it’s been recorded on period instruments, and it’s a revelation.
Just listen to the buzz of the gut strings as they create a misty halo around the opening meandering Faust theme. Or the way the oozy, woody tones of period oboe and clarinet cut though with the ‘nostalgia’ motif. Haselböck shapes phrases that can all too easily lack purpose with enormous skill throughout. Aided by biting brass – the snarl of those muted horns will knock your socks off – and clangourous percussion, it’s a daringly driven and dramatic reading that grips from start to finish.
The Gretchen movement is contrastingly delivered with affection and delicacy, before the devil has his due in the dazzling schizoid Scherzo. Singing with firm, clear tone, Australian tenor Steve Davislim and the Sine Nomine choir are the icing on the cake as with organ thundering they crown the symphony’s finale.
Haselböck has delivered equally robust and important recordings of the Dante Symphony and the Tone Poems previously on the New Classical Adventure label. This excellently engineered disc, if possible, is even finer. Highly recommended.