Liszt: Dante Symphony; À la chapelle Sixtine

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LABELS: Capriccio
WORKS: Dante Symphony; À la chapelle Sixtine
PERFORMER: Netherlands PO & Chorus/Hartmut Haenchen
‘Abandon hope, all who enter here.’ The 14th-century vision lies at the heart of Liszt’s Dante Symphony, a musical portrait of hell based on the Divina commedia. With such a dramatic subject, and so flamboyant a composer, one might expect great things. But the symphony lacks admirers. The short ethereal finale, with soft Hallelujahs from a women’s chorus, may stand in the way of popular acclaim. Liszt subsequently wrote a grander ending but modern performances, including this one, tend to stick with the original. The real problem, however, is that of maintaining tension during Liszt’s endless digressions. The brass fanfares are dark and menacing, with a palpable sense of foreboding, and the strings chatter away in nervous anticipation. But the excitement gradually ebbs. The performance is perfectly respectable but if this symphony is to grab our attention it demands incessant attention to phrasing, dynamic contrast and orchestral colour. Without it, the horrors of hell are dissipated in mediocrity.


The Évocation à la chapelle Sixtine is a Lisztian ‘paraphrase’ of Allegri’s Miserere and Mozart’s Ave verum, originally written for the organ but here lavishly clothed in shadowy orchestral colours. It is certainly evocative – but nothing can diminish the peculiarity of hearing the Ave verum, note for note, halfway through. Christopher Lambton