INKPOT#64 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: LISZT A Faust Symphony. Seiffert/BPO/Rattle (EMI)
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)A Faust Symphony
Peter Seiffert tenor Mens’ Voices of the Ernst-Senff-Chor and Prague Philharmonic Chorus
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
conducted by Sir Simon Rattle
EMI Classics CDC5 55220-2
by Chua Guan Ee
The idea of programme music has been in existence as long as music itself, thought the term itself came later. The “programmatic symphony“, one can however speculate, took its final form in Berlioz’s immense Symphonie Fantastique (1830). Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (“Pastoral”, 1807-8), some would claim, was the first essay in such a genre; although the composer would often remind his listeners that his ultimate goal was not to describe pictures or events, but rather, to express emotion.
Thus, the Frenchman’s innovation in this area of compositional thought broke new ground, and introduced to future generations of composers a wholly inspiring and challenging outlet for artistic creation: figures like Liszt, Richard Strauss and even Tchaikovsky, up to the composers of today, have not failed to fall sway to the programmatic symphony’s undeniable attraction – suffice to say that, in it, they found the most possible conditions to express in music all things literary or pictorial.
The Faust legend has been the subject of countless puppet-plays, and several literary settings of it has appeared over time, from Marlowe to Lessing; it is, however, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s dramatic adaptation of it that has remained as perhaps the most famous. The Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (right), became acquainted with the legend of Faust through Berlioz himself; who, on the eve of the Symphonie‘s premire had introduced to his younger colleague Goethe’s masterpiece.
The dynamism and Romantic ideology of the tale held a strong appeal to Liszt, who upon reading it immediately toyed with the idea of setting it to words and music (opera); collaborating, he thought, with either Alexandre Dumas or Grard de Nerval. Though he was somewhat daunted by the prospect and its scale, he was greatly motivated by the subject’s popularity with his admired Berlioz (La Damnation de Faust) and Wagner (Faust Overture), so much so that he dashed off in a white heat of inspiration to compose his Faust Symphony within two months.
It was first performed in Weimar three years later in 1857, and bears a dedication to none other than Hector Berlioz. It is regarded as one of Liszt’s finest creations: Béla Bartók praised “the absolutely new imaginative conception that manifests itself in the outer two movements which rank among the outstanding musical creations of the 19th century”.
A HIGHLY original composer such as Liszt could not have settled for a symphony of conventional, classical design: in fact, his Faust Symphony is a fully-fledged programmatic symphony in the sense of the aforementioned Symphonie Fantastique; and even he described its concept clearly on the title-page as ” in three character studies” a portrayal of the story’s three protagonists (Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles) and their inter-relationships.It must be noted however, that the composer made no attempt to translate any definite scenes or particular sections of the drama into music; it is purely a representation of the spiritual principles as expressed by the characters themselves. To achieve this, Liszt employed two main constructional principles (derived from Berlioz): thematic transformation and thematic integration, much like the latter’s ide fixe and Wagner’s leitmotifs.
Faust is the subject of the opening movement and is characterised by several themes: the first, a descending sequence of four augmented triads (anticipating already twelve-note composition) corresponds to the man’s moods of deep thought as he appears in his monologue. The second theme, an expressive downward leap of a major seventh followed by a rising third, describes his longing and despair; and the third agitated semiquavers and descending semitones symbolises his urge for life.
The far-flung cantilena that is the fourth theme brings to mind Faust’s longing for “the most painful joy”; and the final theme, marked by a descending and ascending fifth leaping a minor third, could perhaps be a musical elaboration of his own words, “In the beginning was the deed”.
The second movement attempts to put Gretchen, Faust’s object of desire, into perspective. Her innocence is introduced as a melodious, diatonic motif and another ecstatic, but equally simple, theme. The Faust-themes mentioned above penetrate and mingle here, in Gretchen’s subdued universe; and a central section, passionate yet tender, calls to mind a musical love scene between these two characters.
Mephistopheles the devil is summoned to life in the third movement in a most profound manner: no recognisable themes of his own, however; but exists purely as distortions of the tense themes of the striving Faust. Dense chromaticism dominates in this movement: “Faust”-one dissolves into chromatic runs, “Faust”-two is fused with the second-half of “Faust”-three to form the nucleus of a fantastic and truly hellish fugue. Only “Gretchen” remains untouched and unaltered; and in the finale, redemption all that is dark and hideous vanishes, and the motifs return to their initial forms.
The coda, the famous Chorus Mysticus (which appears in the awesome final scene of Goethe’s Faust: Part 2, and was set by Mahler in his Eighth Symphony), was realised by the composer as an ideal musical representation of Faust, and was added in at the last moment. Sir Simon Rattle’s dbut recording with the Berlin Philharmonic is indicative of a magnificent partnership, producing results that are full of insight and not lacking in personality.
The opening Faust motif (Lento Assai) on muted but fortissimo violas and celli is ushered in arrestingly; and the subsequent dialogue between strings and woodwind is imbued with the right amount of mystery and tension. The following Allegro impetuoso dashes in on full-forced violins, and the violence is ideally captured as the strings create a storm amidst roaring brass.
The subsequent Allegro agitato ed appasionato section is distinguished by excellent orchestral response from all sections of the orchestra, markedly so in the tutti passages: highly memorable are the violins-celli exchange of a soaring, lyrical but short-lived melody; and the almost static Meno mosso, misterioso e molto tranquillo fragment, where strings rustle quietly beneath extended notes on woodwinds.
The enthusiasm is infectious in the Grandioso, poco meno mosso section, where trumpets announce their theme with triumph: here, the quick shifts in time-signature are expertly handled by Rattle and his team – no one would be the wiser! After a return to the subdued opening meaures, ferocious trombones herald in the reappearance of the initial theme; supported by wildly rasping tremolo-strings. The penultimate bars are executed in a blazing finish, with the Berlin brass undoubtedly on top form.
Characterful playing from full-toned flute and clarinet soloists introduce the second movement (Andante soave). The chamber quality and its almost Brahmsian feel is alluringly pleasing. Rich, luxurious strings sing for us the lovely melody in the lyrical section the “love-scene” is particularly unforgettable: hark the recitative-like effect between the various voices. Throughout, detail is sensitively phrased and Rattle’s eye (and ear) for nuances is truly unfailing: the seductive bits he certainly never misses!
The cackling woodwinds which open the third movement (Allegro vivace, ironico) are reminiscent of the final movement of the Symphonie Fantastique; and Rattle (left) the Berliners here sound as naughty as possibly can be: the humour (or ironic wit?) that is the chief ingredient of this finale’s beginning is here perfectly captured. As is usual with the conductor, every detail is spot-on and none is left unheard. The tricky phrasing in the strings is cleverly executed; and the nigh-perfect trills and turns that ornament the motifs here lend an appealing capriciousness to the music. The gentle horn solo against a backdrop of strumming harp sounds absolutely heavenly; the peace is, of course, soon to be broken by another dose of manic nervousness.
The “Apotheosis” that forms the coda of the symphony’s third movement calls for an organ, a solo tenor and men’s chorus. Peter Seiffert is a near-ideal heldentenor in the Wagnerian mould; and the male choirs are indeed an excellent compliment, although one could wish for a bit more involvement.
If you’re looking for a clean, no-nonsense reading of this work, look no further than this Rattle/BPO collaboration taped at ‘live’ performances in 1994. Otherwise, Leonard Bernstein and the Boston Symphony Orchestra on DG 447 449-2, an “Originals” re-issue, offer a more explosive and merciless account that is definitely not for the weak-hearted!
This disc is available at or can be ordered from HMV (The Heeren), Tower Records (Pacific Plaza & Suntec City) or Sing Music (Raffles City).