Liszt: Eine Faust-Symphonie

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LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Eine Faust-Symphonie
PERFORMER: Christian Elsner (tenor); Danish National RSO & Choir/Thomas Dausgaard
I have yet to encounter an ideal performance of Liszt’s greatest orchestral work, but if the standard is Simon Rattle’s Berlin version – bracing, intense, serious and conceptual, although lacking the visceral abandon to make the outer movements optimally hair-raising – Dausgaard and his Danish forces provide a less stimulating experience. Theirs is an alert account, warmly recorded and beautifully played (except for some seedy string intonation beginning at 9:12 in the second movement) and notable for many unostentatiously musical touches: intense vibrato on the accented first note in muted violas and cellos and an effectively timed retreat into the haunting, ambiguous Faust theme are harbingers of consistently expressive phrasing as the work’s main materials gradually emerge. Such details are less successfully welded into a larger structure, however. The mysterious, quiet passage that shimmers with ascending string figures (bar 147, at 6:35) does not sound sufficiently parenthetical, and a prevailing lack rhythmic flexibility causes the sequence of musical ideas to seem repetitive rather than subsumed in an overarching dramatic conception. One of the glories of Rattle’s version is that it manages to make the choral finale seem a fitting climax, but in Dausgaard’s hands (and, to be fair, in those of most other conductors) it tends toward meretricious bombast, while tenor Christian Elsner’s effortful access to high notes creates a less than alluring impression. Beside such recordings as Rattle’s and Beecham’s (whose sensuality in the Gretchen movement remains unmatched), this new one is a handsome but temperate also-ran. David Breckbill