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At their first meeting, the day before the premiere of the Symphonie fantastique, Berlioz had introduced Liszt to Part I of Goethe's Faust, sparking a potent recognition of that "something in the air" that would eventually issue in several of Liszt's most ambitious, enduring, and popular works. The Piano Sonata (S. 178) is plausibly thought to embody a Faustian program, while the character portraits of Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles make up the sprawling Eine Faust Symphonie (S. 108), and Liszt composed and orchestrated—with dazzling virtuosity—Episodes from Lenau's Faust. (S. 110)
It was not until he heard an 1852 performance of Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust that he was inspired to begin serious work on what was to become his Faust Symphony. The first version of the work (1854), for a small orchestra without brass, was substantially shorter than its final form. Over the next three years, Liszt expanded the symphony, eventually adding the final chorus in 1857.
Unlike the more episodic and narrative Dante Symphony (S. 109), the Faust Symphony is structured along more purely musical lines. Each of its three movements is a character portrai - together, they were regarded by Liszt as three of his finest tone poems.
The first movement, "Faust," is cast as a sonata-allegro. Faust's theme, consisting of broken augmented triads, uses all 12 tones of the chromatic scale, anticipating the rise of twelve-tone and other atonal techniques that were still decades in the future. In spite of the extreme economy of its material, the movement is nearly 30 minutes in duration, demonstrating Liszt's process of thematic transformation as it spans a remarkable variety of moods that evoke Faust's complex character.
"Gretchen," is slow, meditative and delicately scored. Liszt here continues the process of thematic transformation with material derived from the previous movement. Finally, in keeping with the negative and mocking character “Mephistopheles” is a grotesque parody of the first and uses only one new theme, appropriately borrowed from Liszt's own Malédiction, S. 121.
Liszt added the choral ending to the work only after having completed the Dante Symphony, which likewise has this feature. In the Faust Symphony, the text is the Chorus mysticus which ends Part II of the play.
Hungarian conductor Antal Doráti (1906 –1988) conducts today’s performance. Over the course of his career Doráti made over 600 recordings, making him one of the most recorded conductors of the Stereo era – HMV, RCA, Mefcury, London/Decca and Philips are some of the labels for whom he made recordings. Who hasn’t heard his London Phase 4 recording of Tchaikovsky's "1812" Overture (featuring the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra) with real cannons, brass band, and church bells?
Antal Dorati’s thrillingly demonic live traversal of Liszt’s orchestral masterpiece is often superb. Each of the three protagonists is vividly portrayed; orchestral playing is highly charged, yet scrupulously disciplined. Like Solti, Dorati lets the Hungarian in him take over when it comes to reading Liszt’s complex and often emotion-packed tone poems. The first-generation digital recording is brash and top-heavy, while still worthwhile and highly enjoyable.
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