LISZT:  A Faust Symphony.  
Siegfried Jerusalem, tenor; Chicago Symphony Orch & Chorus/Sir Georg Solti, cond. Les Préludes.  Prometheus.  London Philharmonic Orch/Sir Georg Solti, cond.  Dante Symphony.  Suisse Romande Orch/Jesus López-Cobos, cond.

This seems to be a repackaging of vintage performances rather than remasterings, unlike Decca's "Legends" series that began to appear in Y2K.

The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs has never been my idea of an authoritative publication—not with Edward Greenfield as one of three editors, and Robert Layton continuing to proclaim that "by far the best performance of Nielsen's Fourth [Symphony] comes from Karajan" (who hadn't a clue to the composer's idiom or expressive intent). The Guide's Brit-bias can be tiresome, but one of the editors nailed it in the 1990 edition—the last I felt any need to buy—in his evaluation of Solti's 1986 Chicago recording of A Faust Symphony (after reflexively indorsing Beecham's 1959 version, which always struck me as lethally civilized). "The bright Decca recording underlines the fierce element in Solti's reading, removing some of its warmth...typical of Decca's work in Chicago, very brilliant but lacking in depth of focus which would set the brightness in context." Hear, hear.

That fierceness never got tamed (by 1986 Sir Georg was already 74). He stopped growing as an artist in the mid-to-later 1960s without really mellowing, only slowing down despite some greatly distinguished performances of congenial repertoire (most of Der Ring, Elektra, the Mahler Eighth Symphony, etc.). The most devastating critique was a single sentence from Fritz Reiner, spoken privately in 1960: "Solti has no culture!"

The Faust Symphony of choice remains Leonard Bernstein's in 1976 with the Boston Symphony, reissued on CD as a DGG "Original." For me there's never been a Dante Symphony of choice, only a huff-&-puff patchwork, thematically undistinguished, stolidly scored, and sequence-riddled. Given that, I quite enjoyed López-Cobos' 1981 reading with the Suisse Romande Orchestra at the top of its second-tier form, lambently recorded by Colin Moorfoot for producer Paul Myers in Victoria Hall at Geneva. I may never play it again, but the time went by pleasantly. I see in a copy at hand of Schwann/Opus that the late Giuseppe Sinopoli, the possibly-late György Lehel, and the un-dead Daniel Barenboim have versions on DGG, Hungaroton, and Teldec respectively. Penguin Guide endorsed Lehel in 1990, before the DGG and Teldec competition appeared.

Les Préludes and Prometheus in their final versions as tone-poems were recorded by Solti in 1977. Fine Kingsway Hall analog sound has been digitized without losing its bloom (although not recently, I suspect), but Les Préludes is nonetheless a brutal performance, the crudest I can recall hearing by a celebrity conductor. Prometheus, a poor relative, fares better but Solti lets the structural seams show. The best thing about this reissue—apart from the optional choral ending in both symphonies—is Tim Parry's annotation, scholarly but lucid, respectful of Liszt's postwar-2 rehabilitation as a Futurist. I find this revisionism mostly specious, and thus when pressed to listen to Liszt, choose Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11 in Alfred Brendel's blazing performance from decades back, on a Vox mono LP. Amen.

R.D. (March 2001)