Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Liszt: Eine Faust Symphonie

Prior to today, I can't remember ever listening to a single work by Liszt in my life. What a spectacular oversight!
Leonard Bernstein and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Faust Symphonie
Deutsche Grammophon, 1977

In his day, Liszt was better known for his piano playing than his composing. His prowess at the keyboard was legendary, and he may have been the greatest pianist who ever lived. Just two quotes from my Essential Canon of Classical Musicwill suffice to illustrate how even the great composers of his era held him in awe:

I should like to steal from him the way to play my own etudes.

I've just witnessed a miracle! I was with Liszt at Erard's [a piano maker], and I showed him the manuscript of my concerto. He played it at sight--it's hardly legible--and with the utmost perfection. It simply can't be played any better than he played it. It was miraculous.
--Felix Mendelssohn

Of course, today, Liszt's reputation is based more on his compositions. Today's CD, a recording of Liszt's A Faust Symphony, is a three movement rendering of the legend of Faust, a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for youth, success and love on Earth. The first movement represents Faust, the second represents Gretchen (Faust's love interest) and the third, Mephistopheles.

This symphony is musically complex and challenging. It doesn't have the more obvious tonality and musicality of the music I've been listening to lately, mostly works by Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn. Thus it took me a couple of thorough passes through this CD before I really had my arms around the key musical themes. But I felt like I was richly rewarded for my patience.

If you listen to this other works by Liszt and don't "get it" at first, don't be discouraged--in many ways his compositions were a hundred years ahead of their time. Try to listen attentively to the work a few of times over a few days, and see what you think of it after that. He just might grow into one of your favorite composers.

Also, if you're interested in pursuing the music of Franz Liszt further, I've included a list of some of his key works below, as well as links to Amazon to two high-quality box sets of his complete piano works and orchestral works.

Listener Notes for A Faust Symphony:
1) Be prepared to be challenged by this symphony if you are new to classical music. This work has long movements (the first movement alone is longer than two entire Haydn symphonies stacked end to end) and you'll likely find the music somewhat difficult to follow. There are other works that would be much better to start with if you're a classical music novice.

2) Doesn't the tuba entrance at 3:39 in the first movement shake the ground? I love it.

3) You can hear just the slightest mumbling from a transported Leonard Bernstein at 6:08 in the first movement.

4) Listen for the principal trumpet's nervous and unsteady entrance to his solo at 23:46 in the first movement. When I hear high-school caliber playing like this done by a supposed professional, it makes me question my decision to not go pro as a trumpet player. Come on man! This is a solo! You're stating the key theme of the entire symphony, and it's supposed to be beautiful! Sheesh.

5) One comment on the second movement, which is one of the most beautiful musical works I've ever heard. Listen carefully at 7:02 and 7:12. The strings are collectively taking a big breath before they play each phrase! Who do they think they are pretending that they're playing wind instruments?

Actually, I've performed under conductors who have encouraged string players to do this very thing, because it gets them to think like wind instruments with regard to the length and arc of their phrasing. The audible breaths also have the effect of adding an layer of eerie mournfulness to this performance. I like it.

6) The third movement sounds like something Debussy might write (it has some of the auditory techniques we heard in La Mer). The only thing is, Liszt wrote this fifty years earlier--a testament to how he was far ahead of his time. In fact, this entire symphony sounds more like 20th century music than a work completed in 1854.

7) Here's a translation of the German chorus at the end of the third movement:

All things transitory are but parable;
Here insufficiency becomes fulfillment,
Here the indescribable is accomplished;
The ever-womanly draws us heavenward.

8) Notice the full cathedral-style organ playing underneath the orchestra in the last few minutes of the third movement.

Key Recommended Works by Liszt:
These are some of Liszt's most exemplary works. See also the links below for two high quality box sets of Liszt's compositions.

Hungarian Rhapsodies for Piano
Hungarian Rhapsodies for Orchestra
The Transcendental Etudes
Sonata in B Minor for Piano
Preludes for Orchestra
Concerto #1 in E flat Major for Piano and Orchestra

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