A Faust Symphony

Violin Concerto in D, Op.77
A Faust Symphony [original version]

Nikolaj Znaider (violin)

BBC Philharmonic
Gianandrea Noseda

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 26 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Brahms and Liszt make for a pertinent coupling even outside the domain of cockney rhyming slang, and so it proved. Not that the performance of Brahms’s Violin Concerto was exactly incandescent. Nikolaj Znaider had its measure, and his fine-spun legato has now lost the slightly brittle edge previously apparent, but his interpretation could only be described as unmemorable. Essentially, there is a lack of variety in his playing that failed to lift the music when needed, and for which Gianandrea Noseda’s hectoring approach to such as the climactic transition into the reprise seemed intended to redress. The Joachim cadenza was soundly if unimaginatively dispatched (a pity that most violinists seem unaware of the numerous other cadenzas that exist), and the first movement went smoothly if blandly on its way. The Adagio was more successful (bar some suspect woodwind intonation at the opening), Znaider delving into the expressive shades of the central section, and the finale wore its gypsy elements with some panache. Yet more than other ‘warhorse’ violin concertos of the 19th-century, the Brahms cries out for bold and courageous treatment – scarcely in evidence on this occasion.

Over recent Proms seasons, Noseda has shown himself to be a sympathetic and insightful interpreter of a range of composers – to whom Liszt must now be added. Something of a rarity these days, certainly in live performance, A Faust Symphony brings Liszt’s preoccupations of the 1850s – the symphony and symphonic poem – into potent if unwieldy accord. While not seeking to make the three movements cohere more than is inherent in each, Noseda presented the piece as essentially ‘absolute’ music with a programmatic veneer; one in which elements of Goethe’s drama have been thoroughly subsumed so that they are able to illuminate the music from within, rather than merely characterising it from the outside.

Thus ‘Faust’ had the right sense of striving and heroism constantly merging out of and back into pervasive uncertainty, the extended sonata process underlined and motivated so that it never risked becoming distended. ‘Gretchen’ was rightly treated as the vital link between Beethoven and Bruckner symphonic slow movements (along with the ‘love scene’ from Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet) – Noseda alive to those inflections of mood and texture that prevent it becoming a slave to its wistful charm, and with a real sense of culmination as salient themes are at length recalled.

Easily the most difficult movement to bring off, in that its transformation of previous ideas can seem more the negation of compositional substance than of thematic identity, ‘Mephistopheles’ was equally successful in the way that Noseda maintained lightness of touch – which, coupled with an acidic wit, gave the music the momentum needed to sustain Liszt’s ingenious recycling of material before the transcendent close.

This performance offered a rare outing for the original 1854 ending. Here, instead of tenor and choir intoning a ‘chorus mysticus’ to the redeeming power of the eternal feminine, the orchestra alone hints at the melody that brings about the affirmative close. To be honest, neither solution quite makes up for the more developed finale that Liszt seemed intent on fighting shy of, but the present ending makes for a decisive enough peroration. Certainly the BBC Philharmonic was on its collective mettle throughout – with some lustrous wind playing, and an eloquent response from the solo strings which outline the main theme at the start and close of the central movement. Whatever its faults, A Faust Symphony stands as a monument to Romantic aspiration such as was borne out in Noseda’s performance.

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