, Wednesday 14 August 2002
Tom Service
Liszt: Faust Symphony, Edinburgh 2002
Usher Hall, Edinburgh
Liszt's Faust Symphony is one of the most ambitious and visionary works of the 19th century. But you'd never have known it from Gennadi Rozhdestvensky's glib and under-prepared performance with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

Composed between 1854 and 1861, the piece represents Liszt's most complete answer to the challenge of finding new ways to write for the orchestra in the wake of Beethoven's symphonies. Each of the three huge movements is inspired by one of the characters from Goethe's play: Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles.

Yet instead of a series of programmatic depictions, the imagery from Faust inspired Liszt to some of his most original music. Released from the shackles of academic forms, the piece creates a unique and inexorable drama.

Or at least it should do. In Rozhdestvensky's hands, the vertiginous contrasts of the first movement were bland and banal. He made Liszt's most inspired passages of orchestration sound monochrome and mediocre.

The opening of the second movement, Gretchen, is a vision of pastoral femininity, as a sumptuous oboe melody is supported by the gossamer threads of solo strings. But in the RSNO's performance, there was no coordination between melody and accompaniment, and there were some ruinous problems of intonation.

Rozhdestvensky and the orchestra failed to communicate the dramatic meaning of the music. Bereft of expressive poetry, this performance crippled Liszt's enormous structure; the piece sounded like a series of disconnected fragments rather than a powerfully unified journey.

Jonas Kaufmann's glorious singing of the tenor solo offered a glimpse of what might have been, but it was all too little, too late.

The first half looked like an astute piece of programming, with Beethoven's overture, The Ruins of Athens, and Liszt's fantasy for piano and orchestra based on themes from Beethoven's score. But Rozhdestvensky could only produce lumpen and half-hearted playing from the orchestra. Viktoria Postnikova's playing of the solo part in the Fantasy was full of brute power, but she made the piece sound like an empty technical exercise, and missed the music's improvisatory brilliance.

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