Liszt: Faust Symphony

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WORKS: Faust Symphony
PERFORMER: Hans Peter Blochwitz (tenor); Groot Omroepkoor NOB, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
By any standards, Liszt’s extraordinary Faust Symphony is a landmark in 19th-century music. Even if it did not have anything like the impact of Wagner’s Tristan, it managed to gazump a fair number of the good ideas composers were to have in the 70 years after its completion in 1853. The symphony is not a simple musical analogue of Goethe’s play: Liszt’s three movements are character studies of the three main players in the drama, Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles. In pursuit of this portrayal, Liszt assays some of the most advanced harmony of the era as well as anticipating the fundamental principle of serialism in the opening bars.


For all the opportunities offered the conductor in this work, it is not an easy composition to bring off. Riccardo Chailly proves a near-ideal interpreter, energising Liszt’s frequent repetitions with clear dramatic insight and a strong feel for the work’s long-term goal. The Concertgebouw plays superbly throughout, unashamed by the moments of bombast. Perhaps the portrait of Gretchen could be a touch gentler, and some may find Hans Peter Blochwitz’s tenor too fragile in the concluding Chorus Mysticus, but as a whole this is an impressive performance which makes the best of the symphony’s most remarkable qualities, while dealing sensitively with its less creditable moments. Highly recommended. Jan Smaczny