Liszt: A Faust Symphony

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WORKS: A Faust Symphony
PERFORMER: Jianyi Zhang (tenor)Berlin RSO & Chorus/Eliahu Inbal
Having recently completed his Huit scènes de Faust, Berlioz was still much possessed by Part I of Goethe’s masterpiece when, on the eve of the premiere of the Symphonie fantastique (5 December 1830), he introduced it to Franz Liszt. A Faust Symphony dates from the summer months of 1854; the final chorus was added (along with the last 16 bars of the ‘Gretchen’ movement) shortly before Liszt’s future son-in-law, Hans von Bülow, introduced the work at the Weimar Festival in December 1857.


Eliahu Inbal’s sensational new account evinces each trait of Faust’s character, variously portrayed during the opening movement as tormented mystic, romantic, hero and philosopher. Orchestral playing is exemplary: alert, virtuosic and eloquently responsive. With D’Avalos, the wayward histrionics of the Hungarian band (dire solo viola tuning, woolly, vibrato-laden horns, and raucous, often woefully imprecise woodwinds) impede a potentially rewarding performance. Inbal’s enraptured portrayal of the innocent, yet still unattainable Gretchen is superb. Unlike D’Avalos and others, Inbal views ‘Gretchen’ as an organic part of a greater whole, as something above and beyond a mere interlude.


The Hungarians hack away with abandon throughout most of the epic ‘Mephistopheles’ finale; choral contributions, too, are at best routine. Inbal brings a sinister chill in cellos and basses to the opening bars; a summary reminder that, like the ‘Witches’Sabbath’ of the Symphonie fantastique this is music of devilry and parody. His sense of irony points mockingly at misquoted themes from earlier in the work, ensuring that Mephistopheles’s spirit of negation taints all but the closing chorus. The final pages are undeniably moving; absolution and celestial redemption, extolled in the virtues of love and womanhood, crown an outstanding performance. The recording, made at the Schauspielhaus, Berlin, is of demonstration quality. Michael Jameson