LISZT A Faust Symphony
Writing of Martin Haselböck’s Liszt recordings in a previous Gramophone context I remarked how ‘the period-instrument Vienna Academy Orchestra…takes us away from the mountainous spectre of Wagner (unlike Masur, Haitink, Karajan or Solti) and presents [the composer’s] original canvases in a fresh light’. In dealing with the work that could count as Liszt’s orchestral masterpiece, I might add among the mountain dwellers Beecham, Bernstein (twice), Fischer and Sinopoli. Haselböck’s approach is rather less visceral than theirs; again, as I’ve pointed out in the past, he reveals aspects of Liszt’s scoring that would otherwise go unnoticed.
The muted strings at the beginning of ‘Faust’, played largely without vibrato, lead seamlessly to the winds; and once we reach the Allegro impetuoso, note the clarity of the stopped horns – a real sting in the tail. The brass and timpani (played with hard sticks) really tell, partially because the strings, although admirably energetic, lack the sort of pooled sonority that modern string bands command. A passage that works especially well arrives at 5'53", marked meno mosso, misterioso e molto tranquillo, where held wind chords and quiet, filigree string figurations hold the mood.
‘Gretchen’ is appropriately chaste, her chosen tempo relatively swift, and at her most telling when she tenderly tames the troubled beast by revisiting the material previously encountered in Faust’s anguished Allegro agitato ed appasionato – that’s at around 11'06". One of the score’s incomparably magical moments occurs, previous to that point, at 8'17", where the strings take on a Brangäne role while the flutes metaphorically caress each other. Here I have to admit a preference for Leonard Bernstein’s DG Boston Symphony recording (the same passage arrives at 11'01" on his disc), where there’s so much more tenderness on offer. Haselböck’s light touch has its appeal, Gretchen as painted in pastels perhaps, but with Bernstein she truly comes to life.
Again, at the start of ‘Mephistopheles’ Bernstein conjures a malevolent chuckle whereas Haselböck keeps the Devil at bay. Interestingly, Bernstein and Haselböck clock up similar total timings for this most mischievous of Liszt finales; but whereas Bernstein is ready for the closing ‘Chorus mysticus’ by 16'32", with Haselböck you have to wait until 18'14" which of course means that as well as driving harder and faster in the main body of the movement, Bernstein’s closing chorus has extra breadth. Then again, to start where I began, with Haselböck, you begin to understand Liszt’s sound world as he understood it, more or less, though whose interpretation he would have favoured is anyone’s guess. Certainly this well-recorded production is well worth a try but don’t whatever you do part with your tried and tested favourites until you’ve heard it. Beautiful singing by Steve Davislim, by the way.