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Under the Radar: Bernstein’s First Liszt Faust Symphony (sample Insider review)

Review by: David Hurwitz

Faust Sample Insider Review Cover

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 8

Leonard Bernstein’s Boston recording of Liszt’s Faust Symphony has for so long been regarded as the reference recording of the work that we’re apt to forget that there’s an earlier version that he made with the New York Philharmonic for Sony back in the 196os. He clearly loved the piece, and offhand I can’t think of another conductor of similar stature who actually recorded it twice. Bernstein even devoted an entire televised “Young People’s Concert” to discussing it, much more for the benefit of the adults in the audience I should think.

In the telecast, Bernstein spoke somewhat disparagingly of the revised ending with chorus, which he nonetheless recorded both times. Liszt’s admittedly perfunctory original instrumental conclusion is almost never played nowadays, and for those who are curious you can hear it below in Argenta’s Decca recording with the Paris Conservatory Orchestra (sound clip). In this Sony performance, Charles Bressler sings the tenor solo very sincerely and sweetly, and Bernstein plays the music with typical conviction, never mind any misgivings he might have had. It seems the only possible conclusion to such an imposing piece.

In short, this earlier recording is every bit as fine as Bernstein’s later, Boston version, and it has the not inconsiderable advantage of being about two minutes quicker in every movement. There’s very little difference between the two performances in the fast music, as a comparison of the first movement’s initial allegro reveals (sound clips). Rather, the difference stems from Bernstein’s greater willingness to indulge the slower and gloomier music in the Faust movement, Gretchen’s innocent allure, and the broader tempo for the closing chorus at the end of Mephistopheles. Sonically there is very little to choose between the two recordings: they are both very good.

Frankly, I am amazed that Sony decided to reissue this recording at all since the work has never been that popular, but I am very glad that they did. Get it while you can. It is, after all, Liszt’s greatest orchestral work, and the more you come to know the music the better it sounds. Bernstein was right to lavish on it so much time and attention.

A Faust Symphony: Original Ending (Argenta/Decca):

A Faust Symphony (i) NY Philharmonic: 

A Faust Symphony (i) Boston Symphony (DG): 
Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details


Reference Recording: Bernstein/Boston (DG); This One


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