Prom 15: Liszt’s Faust Symphony, Kodály and Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 1

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Rembrandt van Rijn, Faust, etching, Rijksmuseum, c. 1652.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Faust, etching, Rijksmuseum, c. 1652.

Prom 15:
Kodály: Dances of Galánta
Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 1
Liszt: A Faust Symphony 

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano
Marco Jentzsch, tenor

London Philharmonic Choir (men’s voices)
London Symphony Chorus (men’s voices)
London Philharmonic Orchestra

Vladimir Jurowski, conductor

Loved to dearth. Without remembering any legal documents I signed that had Satan written in the small print, just when I forget how tawdry and thin Liszt’s Faust Symphony is, it comes around again and I give it another chance. Too late. I hear the old guy cackle and the doors of Albert Hall clanging shut. The only way to overcome the symphony’s clattering banality is for the conductor to bash the score within an inch of its life. The thing won’t die — no fear of that — and if there is truly inspired leadership, as from Leonard Bernstein and Jascha Horenstein in their classic recordings, the music will bring genuine pleasure, like the circus.

Not everyone is diabolically duped to be in the presence of the Faust Symphony. Vladimir Jurowski, the young Russian dynamo, offered promise of being intense enough to lift the work off the ground. But for me he took the wrong tack entirely. In his Proms performance this week he lovingly caressed every phrase. The first, most ominous section, devoted to Faust, was handled with measured sobriety. The second movement, Gretchen, was hushed and barely touched the earth. The mischievous finale, Mephistopheles, moved on hair springs. As a result, there was no guts to the reading, and Jurowski protracted the timing by ten minutes.

The London Philharmonic played with exquisite clarity and perfect ensemble, but Liszt’s vapid themes are “developed” through bald repetition, modulating up and down a few steps, more repetition, and adding some trills. The resounding Chorus Mysticus that the composer tacked on as an apotheosis featured a huge male choir who sat through the entire concert for the purpose of jumping to their feet for five minutes, most of it spent repeating Ewigweibliche (Eternal Feminine) like a stuck record waiting for someone to notice. A tenor soloist is cruelly asked to jump in, cold turkey, to sing music of Wagnerian difficulty, which Marco Jentzsch attempted manfully (is there another last name with six consonants in a row?) The audience loved it all.

[for an alternative view, see the Berkshire Review‘s report on the Bard Music Festival 2006: Franz Liszt and his World, specifically the discussion of Leon Botstein’s performance of the Faust Symphony and Alan Walker’s introductory talk on the work.]

Unhappiness, they say, is failed expectations. Certainly true for the Faust Symphony that evening, but in a nice reversal, I expected nothing from Kodaly’s Galanta Dances, a pleasant arrangement of folk material (Galanta is a region of Slovakia) that had already been performed a month ago by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia. Presto chango, Jurowski found sinew and drive in a score that Salonen polished until it was all gleam and no rough edges. I had liked his rendition; Jurowski’s was one to celebrate.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet.

Even better was to follow. In the past decade or so I’ve not come across a set of Bartók’s three piano concertos to equal that from the French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet on the Chandos label. It sent me searching for details about an artist unknown to me. Bavouzet is in his late forties; he has won prizes and recorded Debussy and Ravel, among other things, for Chandos. It would be easy to shrug him off: the world is fairly crammed with prize-winning pianists and also a fair number of outstanding recordings of the Bartók concertos, going back at least as far as Geza Anda and Ferenc Fricsay (on DG). In the wake of some great interpretations from the young Barenboim with Boulez, Stephen Kovacevich with Colin Davis, Pollini with the older Boulez, and scattered performances by Argerich, not to mention the flashy set from Ashkenazy and Solti, can Bavouzet find his own niche?

He answered at the Proms with a brilliant reading of Bartók’s devilishly difficult Piano Concerto no. 1, not to wear the satanic metaphor to death. The piano is used with relentless percussiveness, and to underline the point, Bartók asks for the orchestra’s battery of percussion to be arranged around the piano at the front of the stage. Jurowski followed the instruction, to good effect. It’s hard to get into the Bartók First, not because our ears are constantly assaulted (although they are) but because of its density. Set apart on its own, the piano-percussion group gives us the equivalent of Bartók’s great sonata for those instruments, while the orchestral part, which shows a deep absorption of the Rite of Spring, could also be heard on its own with satisfaction. Sandwich the two layers together, however, and the listener is swamped.

Jurowski must have realized the problem, because he took pains to untangle the thickets and thorn patches in the orchestral part, while Bavouzet did the same with the piano writing. For once, I could follow everything, and so much ingenious music was pulled out of the fog that my attention never wandered for a minute. On records Bavouzet is a lyrical player of this piece, and he was less assaultive than the norm in concert, too. He promises to be a great Lisztian as well, to judge by the exciting, clangorous encore, the Invocation from Liszt’s Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses.

It’s an appealing theme that the Proms has going this summer, combining Brahms, Hungary, and Liszt, the latter having his bicentennial. Further on there will be a performance of the Dante Symphony, Liszt’s other massive symphonic work. The musical scene is a compliant one, and I have no real complaint against the wretched dross when Liszt churns up the orchestra like the devil churning butter. Diabolism was a wildly successful shtick for him, as it was for Paganini (not that I believe in the composer’s late-life turn to God, either. He never stopped looking for a bigger stage). Goethe and Dante will survive. God and Satan will continue to make wagers over our souls. My only worry, while enduring the Faust Symphony without a snooze alarm, is that the wrong side may win.

About the author

Huntley Dent

Huntley Dent is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Santa Fe.

Readers Comments (3)

  1. “And now for something completely different”:

    Liszt’s Invocation? It was a COMPLETE DISASTER. The pianist was composing the piece while playing – obviously he completely forgot the score from the beginning. He managed to improvise some music left over in his head pretending to play Liszt’s piece but only jamming some romantic tunes to be heard by an uninformed Prommers audience. I dont know what he played. It had NOTHING to do with Liszt’s wonderful piece of music.

    It was like: God! Please help me! Where are the keys? Where is my memory?

    So, in that way, it truly was an desperate INVOCATION…

    • Reading your passionate comment only today I feel obliged to add the following:
      you can find the version you heard that night in the complete Liszt Edition of Musica Budapest under the tittle “Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses first version”. This version is much shorter then the second one you seemed to refer to and as you could hear is only two minutes long. And I wish myself that on such an exposed stage as the Proms I would be able to improvise these beautiful harmonies !!
      Jean-Efflam Bavouzet

  2. What’s your name? Eduard Hanslick? Thought those ignorants died a 100 years ago…

    But obviously the wrong side has won…(?)

    Anyway – Liszt will survive.

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