Franz Liszt, the celebrated virtuoso pianist, enjoyed a dual career as performer and also composer. At the Weimar court, that renowned artistic center of the 1800's, he directed his ceative energies toward what he termed "music of the future". This impulse included championing the music of both the Frenchman Hector Berlioz and the German Richard Wagner. In the spirit and under the influence of their music, Liszt penned his tribute to Goethe's dramatic play-poem, Faust .
Owing to centuries of folklore, the basic Faust ian legend has become well-known. A scholar from medieval times, Faust is a man possessing a fateful blend of wisdom and foolery – perhaps just a bit too much of the latter. For Satan (Méphistophélès) appears to him, offering him unlimited knowledge and pleasure. The catch is, that when Faust becomes content and self-satisfied, his fate (and his soul) will be eternally in the hands of the devil. Faust, blinded by his restless desire to learn the secrets of the universe, accepts Satan's covenant. Only his perpetual striving and the power of heaven's love prevents the diabolical scheme from becoming a reality.
The idea of dramatizing the Faust legend in music has been seized upon by several important composers. These include not only Liszt (A Faust Symphony,1857) but also Charles Gounod (in his opera Faust,1859), Hector Berlioz (his opera The Damnation of Faust, 1846), Richard Wagner (A Faust Overture, 1855) and even Gustav Mahler, in whose Symphony #8 (The Symphony of a Thousand, 1907) the emphasis is on divine love, "the greatest gift of the Holy Spirit", which rescues not only Faust but all of faithful mankind.
Liszt's Faust Symphony is organized into three parts, complying with the three central characters of the drama: I. Faust himself, II. Gretchen (Marguerite) and III. Méphistophélès. One may speculate as to the link between Liszt the composer and his musical portrait of the character of Faust . At any rate, Liszt composed rapidly, and the work was finished in only two months. The opening portrait of Faust lasts thirty minutes, and brings with it five distinct themes depicting the restless and emotional nature of this character, whose incessant attempts to discover the truths of the universe leave him no peace.
In the second movement, the innocent Gretchen is represented by the sweet sound of flute, oboe and strings in chamber music-like delicacy. In the central section Faust enters, and a poetic and sensitive whirlwind of their poetic love scene is conveyed by Liszt's music, which is at turns as tender as a flower's petal and as passionate as a sensual romantic interlude.
The bizarre appearance of Méphistophélès (third and final movement) comes as a shock after the preceding episode. Twisting notes, with plucked strings and chugging, sardonic horns adorn his arrival *and subsequent grotesque transformations (timpani and cymbals). Importantly, the purity of the Gretchen theme remains intact despite all the Mephistophelean flailings, which take the form of full orchestral savagery.
Suddenly their is a passing of something, and the musical direction takes a new turn, with the entry of the male-voiced chorus mysticus and tenor solo. Liszt, as Beethoven before him had done in his Ninth Symphony, heightens the sense of drama with a choral apotheosis. Additionally, he creates the sense of religious solemnity by adding the power of the organ in the final blazing moments (an effect replicated and even magnified by Mahler in his Eighth). The concluding triumph of good over evil is imparted with unrestrained certainty, as this Faust Symphony comes to its exhilarating close.
Now, to turn to the Vox recording of the Faust symphony. Write a letter to the folks at Moss Music to thank them for starting the "Vox Legends" series. These are new editions to the VoxBox CD concept devoted to reissuing legendary performances from the Turnabout/Vox recording legacy onto compact disc. The first release is a two-CD set of the still-performing 100-year-old pianist Mieczysław Horszowski playing Beethoven Sonatas 29, 30 and 32 (on VoxBox 5500, price M) a recording hitherto unavailable since around 1950. Another artist (who unfortunately is no longer living) rescued by the Vox Legends series is conductor Jascha Horenstein.
It is to Horenstein that we now turn, whose recordings have been much sought-after in the past by LP collectors, and with good reason. Though occasionally working with musicians decidedly below the world's top-rank at the time, he often produced results that were hair-raisingly exciting and musically potent. I am happy to report that such is the case in these recordings of the Liszt and Wagner treatments of "Faust ". A pity that a Horenstein Mahler 8th was not available; the included Bruckner 8th falls quite short here, and does not represent the composer, conductor or orchestra (Vienna Pro Musica) in a flattering light.
The notes toward the bottom of the set's back cover suggest that all the recordings on this set date from the 1950's. While I believe this could be true for the Bruckner, I find the sound of the Liszt and Wagner to be much too good for that vintage. What a pleasant surprise! The string tone is slightly aggressive but somehow appealing, the woodwinds are perky and effective, the brass blow sharply and impressively and the percussion is realistic.
Horenstein's conception of the three portraits in Liszt's Faust Symphony shows tremendous imagination and understanding. Faust's tension, Gretchen's repose and Méphistophélès' diabolical nature are etched so successfully that the nearly seventy-minute work seems for the listener perfectly organized and coherent. It is to the conductor's and orchestra/chorus/tenor's credit that the work seems so well integrated and non-episodic/ non-bombastic. There is an inevitable feel of honesty and integrity when dealing with a Horenstein recording; this is certainly the case here, and he wins you over, making you believe that this piece is one of the repertoire's finest creations.
While some may cringe at the apparent program music nature of Liszt's Symphony, there are many outstanding passages which will not fail to move the listener. Horenstein and his musicians never fail to make the most of them, be they of the explosive orchestral or contemplative chamber music variety. By the time the work has concluded, I felt gratitude for having had the opportunity to experience this music. The final appearance of the tender Gretchen melody, as it is given over from the woodwinds to the vocalists in an utterly lovely hymnodical style which becomes more and more elaborate as the orchestra joins, is a magical moment not soon forgotten. Tenor Ferdinand Koch and the Orchestra's Male Chorus are thoroughly convincing here.
Space limitations prevent my saying much about the other works in this double-disc set. As indicated, the Bruckner is the weak spot, but the Wagner is every bit as enjoyable and as well-recorded as the Liszt. Akin in dark feeling to his own Flying Dutchman, Wagner's Faust Overture remains one of his least-known orchestral works, a shame since its musical interests are many, especially as displayed on this recording.
What shall I say? Two homeruns, one foul-out. Don't make the mistake of dwelling on the out; the homeruns are well-worth the ticket price. If your Liszt collection contains only Les Préludes and some piano music, you shouldn't hesitate to acquire his Faust Symphony. If you delight in Beethoven, Berlioz, Mahler or Wagner, likewise.
Copyright © 1996, Peter S. Murano