Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Back in its day, Thomas Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's 1958 recordings of Liszt's "Faust" Symphony and tone poem Orpheus were greeted with heartfelt gratitude by the listening public. Here were performances of tremendous power but wonderful delicacy, of terrific sophistication but marvelous tenderness, of high-minded idealism and deep-in-the-body sensuality that seemed to capture all the aspects of Liszt's multifaceted genius. In this nearly half-century-later reissue, Beecham and the RPO's performance still sounds grand, if not quite so grand as it sounded then. The caveat is not for the playing - the Royal Philharmonic was then one of the finest London orchestras and its playing here combines brilliant polish with a very un-English passion - nor is it for the conducting - Beecham was then one of the very finest English conductors and his direction here combines compelling commitment with unstoppable joi de vivre. No, the caveat is for the recording itself, which, while it sounded great in the early days of stereo, here sounds dim, distant, and dated in this 2005 reissue. Also, additional caveats may be the inclusion of Constantin Silvestri and the Philharmonia's rough and ready recordings of Liszt's Les Preludes and Tasso and Beecham's over-the-top recording of Liszt's hellbent for glory setting of Psalm XIII. Still, anyone who loves the works will want to hear Beecham's recordings of A Faust Symphony and Orpheus, still arguably among the finest performances of either work ever recorded.
All Music Guide
========= from the cover ==========
Faust Symphony and tone poems
The totality of Franz Liszt's life and achievement is hard to hold in the mind. He was the archetypal artist of the Romantic era; brilliant virtuoso composer-pianist, campaigning conductor, indefatigable transcriber, legendary teacher; worldly grand seigneur and devout minor canon of the Catholic church; Hungarian nationalist and folklorist; revolutionary formal and technical innovator; and eventually a visionary prophet of 20th-century music. Hungarian-born within the Austrian Empire, he worked and lived in France, Germany, Italy, and was one of the 19th century's best-known celebrities from London to Moscow.
Perhaps the only unity of this impossibly large life lies in the fact that one man lived it. Not even Liszt could reconcile within himself all the tensions and opposites of his personality. Composition, however, helped him (and us) to define them. In his music, he inhabits a multitude of personae that range from Mephistopheles to St Francis of Assisi, from Byronic wanderer to the apparently pious and orthodox man of the cloth who wrote the late choral works.
Liszt's 'new' forms - notably the symphonic poems - sprang from his desire for a more immediately dramatic conflict and interconnection of ideas than allowed by the fundamentally architectural, tonal contrasts of classical sonata structures. He found instead in Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique the principle of the idee fixe, the symbolic idea recurring in different guises in different movements, which led him (and later Wagner) to develop leitmotivic technique. In Schubert's 'Wanderer' Fantasy (which he orchestrated) he discovered the concept of transformation applied to the rhythmic and expressive characters of entire sections. From these hints he evolved his own structural principle of thematic metamorphosis usually combined with a programmatic element derived from literature or painting.
Liszt's musical forms didn't ape those of extra-musical models: the model provided him with what he called 'psychological motives' which he then worked out in his own terms. These 'psychological motives' are seen at work in the symphonic poems, and especially in his supreme achievements in the field of orchestral music, the Faust and Dante symphonies.
All but one of his 13 symphonic poems were completed in the decade 1848-58, when Liszt was living in Weimar with the honorary position of court Kapellmeister. Les Preludes (1848) was published in 1854 with the subtitle 'd'apres Lamartine'. However it is now known that the music was originally conceived as an overture to a choral work, Les Quatre Elements, to a text by Joseph Autran; Liszt eventually discarded the choruses, but worked up the overture into Les Preludes, finding in Lamartine's poem, with its contrasting episodes of pastoral and warlike valour, a succession of moods that matched his music. The work is a fine example of Liszt's techniques of thematic metamorphosis, the opening theme taking on many guises and characters before winning through to a triumphant C major conclusion.
Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo was first performed to mark the 1849 centenary of Goethe's birth at a performance of his play Torquato Tasso, about the celebrated 16th-century poet who suffered insanity, was imprisoned in Ferrara and wrote the epic Gerusalemme Liberata. Byron's Lament of Tasso was a second source. The 'lamenting' first part of the work, in C minor, is followed, in a victorious C major, by the 'triumph' won by Tasso's death in Rome and his immortal posthumous fame. At this stage Liszt was still uncertain of his powers of orchestration, and it was only in 1854, after two versions orchestrated by Conradi and Raff respectively, that he made the final version, wholly orchestrated by himself, adding the central minuet section depicting Tasso at the Ferrarese court.
Orpheus was composed in 1853-4, originally as the prelude to a production of Gluck's Orpheus which Liszt conducted in Weimar. Depicting the legendary poet-musician taming the beasts and uniting humanity with nature in the civilising harmony of art, this is a serene and noble work without dramatic interruptions. The tones of the harp (Liszt uses two) mimic Orpheus's lute. The songful main theme, on horns and cellos, is eventually taken up by full orchestra; there is a more melancholy contrasting idea, and a radiant code with a magical chordal sequence on strings, answered by woodwind.
It was after Orpheus that Liszt turned to a major work based on Goethe's drama Faust, the archetypal proto-romantic text of striving after knowledge and risking all in a pact with demonic forces. In A Faust Symphony, composed at white heat in two months in 1854, his approach to symphonic form is resolutely unclassical. It is a triptych of brilliant character-studies: the aspiring, noble, fallible Faust, whose endless questing after knowledge is symbolised by a 12-note theme; the pure-spirited, youthful Gretchen; and Mephistopheles, the 'spirit of negation'. The themes are continually being transformed - indeed, by an inspired stroke, Mephistopheles has almost no themes of his own, but a comprehensive parody of Faust's. However, the unity thus imparted is felt less strongly than the contrasts of the human and devilish types. Gretchen's themes also reappear in the Mephistopheles movement, but are immune to parody, and thus unassimilable. Nevertheless, it's Mephistopheles who makes the deepest impression. His movement is a gigantic orchestral tour de force, full of mockery but also a kind of glorious, intoxicating bravado. Although Liszt's concluding setting of Goethe's final 'chorus mysticus' in praise of the redeeming power of the eternal feminine, which he added in 1857, is an undeniably impressive and exalted conclusion, it doesn't obliterate the impact of Mephistopheles's swaggering demonic virility.
Despite his popular association with the demonic, religious choral music, of which Psalm XIII is the best-known, formed a significant part of Liszt's output. Written in the year after the Faust Symphony, it is practically a choral symphonic poem, using similar techniques of thematic metamorphosis. A groping chromatic orchestral fugue, depicting anguish and yearning for salvation, is balanced later on by a triumphant major-key fugue for the chorus. Like Tasso, this fine work moves overall from minor to major to express the passage from darkness to light.
- Malcolm MacDonald, 2005