My history in relation to this work is one of searching and hoping for a totally convincing performance - one that makes all the ups and downs of inspiration irrelevant and treats the work as a work of art, no matter how uneven. I think I must have had, at one time or another, every recording made in the last 60 years. Eventually I settled down with Bernstein/New York Phil as closest to "my view", although it was as erratic and uneven as the work itself. The Solti arrived on the scene and blotted it out.Liszt: A Faust Symphony; Dante Symphony; Les Préludes; Prometheus Solti is not all that idiomatic, but a magnificently crafted performance and splendidly recorded. When this second Bernstein reading was relesased, I ignored it. I could not imagine anyone doing a better job than Solti.
But a few weeks ago at last I yielded to temptation. It seemed to me that Bernstein "should" be the right man for Liszt; that at least temperamentally he should have a greater affinity for Liszt than Solti.
So I took the risk, and for once it was amply rewarded.
As far as sheer conducting skill is concerned, he still has to hand it to Solti. But his vision of the work differs very markedly. Bernstein has an uncanny feeling for the value of every note in this work. He slows down and accelerates in a way that makes you understand, suddenly and unsuspectingly, that unevenness, even the drying out of inspiration in some passages, and the laborious padding between the large gestures, carry meaning. It is quite incredible: Bernstein manages to turn those laboured episodes into meaningful passages in a way that you, as a listener, engage with the composer on a search for the right inspiration! This is surely unprecedented. The boring episodes become exciting with anticipation, aspiration, hope, for them to become what they are not! And when they finally blaze out, their conviction and splendour is utterly convincing. Bernstein makes sense of the whole by enlivening the bits and pieces and setting them before you as a panorama, where not the peaks alone, but the troughs as well, as full of interest.
I hesitate to say: this is the version of the Faust Symphony you must own. But where Solti homogenises the work, so that you have the satisfaction of experiencing a musical performance that is honed down to the most perfect finish imaginable, Bernstein leaves all the fissures open, because he wants to explore them with you. This is not likely to be to everyone's taste.
Meanwhile the Boston symphony respond marvellously to their conductor, and DGG's sound is sumptuous and transparent.