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Liszt: A Faust Symphony (The Beecham Collection)

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Catalogue No: SOMM-BEECHAM 25
Release Date: 03/01/2009
Number of Discs: 1
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Liner Notes
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Another Beecham Premiere CD Release from SOMM joins recent critically acclaimed issues in the prestigious SOMM Beecham Collection. This is a 1956 live recording of Liszt’s A Faust Symphony with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Thomas Beecham, in an excellent transfer to CD by engineer Gary Moore which is sure to please all admirers of Beecham’s inspired conducting in the concert hall.

Beecham Choral Society
Alexander Young – Tenor
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, Bart., C.H.

The music of Liszt featured selectively in Sir Thomas Beecham’s programmes, with a handful of works appearing in the first thirty years of his long conducting life,(notably Die Loreley, Hungarian Rhapsody No.2, Symphonic Poem:Orpheus, and Les PreludesEine Faust-Symphonie based on three character studies in Goethe, first written by Liszt for orchestra in 1854, with a choral finale added in 1857. Sir Thomas first took the work into the Royal Festival Hall for a Royal Philharmonic Society concert on 14th November 1956, with the tenor Alexander Young, the Beecham Choral Society and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. A week later he took the same soloist and choir to the BBC Studio No. 1 at Maida Vale and broadcast the work, this time with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on 21st and 22nd December.  Convinced by the work, he made clear his intentions to EMI that he wished to record it and this was recorded in April,and May with a final session on 31st October. It is the Royal Philharmonic Society concert of 14th November 1956 (which also included the Mendelssohn: Overture: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Beethoven’s Second Symphony) which is preserved here.

In brief, the work begins with Faust, a large-scale movement in loose sonata-form with a short central development and a protracted recapitulation. Many of its themes and motives appear throughout the score in various guises. The opening theme in C major evokes the gloomy Faust, a dreamer, in everlasting search for truth and knowledge, followed by the ‘Nostalgia’ theme. This is followed by a slow crescendo culminating in a violent Allegro agitato e appassionato  theme, depicting Faust’s insatiable appetite for the pleasures of life.

Gretchen is represented by a mellow, affectionate slow movement in A flat major expressing Gretchen’s virginal innocence. She is obsessed by Faust, and therefore we may hear Faust’s themes being introduced progressively into the music, until his and Gretchen’s themes become entwined in a passionate love duet.

Mephistopheles is the most outstanding movement in the entire Symphony. Since  Mephistopheles is Satan, who is not capable of creating his own themes, he takes all of Faust’s themes from the first movement and mutilates them into ironic and diabolical distortions. Here Liszt’s mastery of thematic metamorphosis shows itself in its full power, with the music being pushed to the very verge of atonality by use of high chromaticism, rhythmic leaps and fantastic scherzo-like sections. Only Gretchen’s theme remains intact as her innocence pushes Mephistopheles away towards the end of the work.

Chorus mysticus. Liszt’s original version of 1854 ended with a fleeting reference to Gretchen and the theme in C major, from the opening movement. However, when Liszt re-thought the piece three years later, he added a ‘Chorus mysticus’, tranquil and positive, with the male chorus singing the words from Goethe’s Faust whilst the tenor soloist rises above the murmur of the chorus and starts to sing the last two lines of the text, emphasizing the power of salvation through the Eternal Feminine.

On This Recording

  1. Eine Faust-Symphonie in drei Charakterbildern: I. Faust
  2. Eine Faust-Symphonie in drei Charakterbildern: II. Gretchen
  3. Eine Faust-Symphonie in drei Charakterbildern: III. Mephistopheles
  4. Eine Faust-Symphonie in drei Charakterbildern: IV. Final Chorus