Noseda’s Faust Symphony Lives Up to Its Initial Promise

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Shostakovich, Liszt: Leonidas Kavakos (violin), London Symphony Orchestra / Gianandrea Noseda (conductor),  Barbican Hall, London,  8.4.2015. (GD)

Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No 1 in A minor Op. 77
Liszt : A Faust Symphony S 108

I read recently an essay on Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto  in which the writer refers to the ‘utter despair’ of the first movement ‘Nocturne’. Like so many Western discourses on Russian culture this rather misses the point. Utter despair seems to indicate  a moment of collapse or surrender, but this music has nothing to do with the implications of  resignation of surrender.  It is redolent more of a deep brooding defiance with stalking basses and celli, which  project a sense of trenchant stoicism, a kind  of dark drive. But, on another level, why can’t we simply refer to it as a dark brooding movement in A minor? The appellation ‘Nocturne’ is not meant in the traditional sense as ‘night’ music; it functions  as a metaphor for a more psychological dark drama, just as the ‘Hymn to the Night’ in Act Two of Tristan is a metaphor for dark erotic passion. I can’t think of a modern composer who is so assailed by non- musical political, emotive metaphors than Shostakovich. Perhaps if we ditch all this dense and superfluous metaphoricality we might start to understand Shostakovich’s music with more clarity and insight.

 As the opening ‘Nocturme’ unfolded I sensed a rare and intense sense of dialogue between soloist and conductor; and there was gladly no hint of mannerism or agogic tempo manipulation. This is very much a ‘symphonic’ concerto where the orchestra does not so much accompany the soloist as play in unison with him. Kavakos contoured the ‘rising’ and ‘ falling’ melodies and quasi melodious figurations with superb confidence and technical assurance, although never sounding ‘virtuosic’ for the sake of sounding ‘virtuosic’. The opening theme of the ‘Nocturne’ which recurs as a kind of ritornello throughout the concerto was never underlined but clearly projected. The ferocious energy of the following scherzo, with its intonation of the composers DSCH motif,  was once described by David Oistrakh (the work’s dedicatee) as ‘fiendish’. And that ferocious energy was certainly unleashed tonight. Especially notable here was Noseda’s grip  on the most complex rhythmic inflections and deflections. The LSO woodwind were in fine form – superbly balanced and audible even in the most eruptive tutti sections.  I have heard the Pasacaglia movement described as ‘noble’ which I suppose has some resonance with the Baroque (and earlier) origins of this ancient dance formation, but the starkness of the tone, no trumpets or trombones  but a single tuba surely implies something much more modern and menacing. Shostakovich is not often spoken about in terms of orchestral/instrumental innovation, but the unusual tones of stoic defiance and a haunting quality are quite unique. Of especial mention here was the superb contribution from the LSO timpanist, always impressively ‘there’ in his octave doubling of the string bass line,  but never bashed out as is sometimes the case.  Kavakos’ rendition of the long and difficult extended cadenza, which emerges from the passacaglia and  in which the main theme of the scherzo is clearly resonant, was something of a tour de force. In places it almost reminded me of the energy and total musicality of Oistrakh, but this was totally in keeping with Kavakos’s own rendition throughout the concerto. Again there was staggering virtuosity, as the composer intended, but it never sounded merely ‘virtuosic’  in the flashy sense. The rondo finale with its hint of the trepak folk dance, and even shades of the finale from the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, was delivered with tremendous energy, with the return of the passacaglia theme, initiated by the horn towards the coda  clearly delineated by both soloist and conductor.  The brilliant coda itself was driven with an irresistible tone of high spirits although in Shostakovich’s most radiant music there is a lurking tone of the ‘hectic’, the ‘fiendish’, as Oistrakh so perceptively observed.

 Liszt’s  Faust Symphony is arguably his finest orchestral work. As a character study of Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles his work is more Romantic in its musical rhetoric. The long first movement intoning the complex character of Faust emphasises his restless   questing. But if we read Goethe’s Faust (Liszt’s main inspiration) we are surprised at how little Faust actually does in the way of action. He seems in his dialogues with Mephistopheles a more metaphysically introspective character. Similarly, in the second ‘Gretchen’ movement, Liszt seems to be concentrating on romantic love, with Gretchen plucking petals from a flower, murmuring ‘He loves me, he loves me not’…..  In reality Goethe’s epic portrays the relationship between Gretchen and Faust as anything but Romantic or sentimental. She is betrayed and seduced by Faust, and vilified, brutalised, imprisoned by her brother and the other inhabitants of her village. The last movement’s portrayal of Mephistopheles is more in line with Goethe in its relentless scherzo-like grotesque energy. But it is a little difficult to know how exactly music can portray the ‘Ironico’ Liszt asks for. But if we listen to  classic recordings of  the    work  from the likes of Ferencsik and Chailly    we certainly hear that demonic irony at work, although it is difficult to describe in words, or in musical examples.

 Noseda’s opening promised well. The theme on violas and cellos represents the mystical and magical side of Faust’s nature. But more importantly, in terms of musical history, it consists of four broken augmented triads, and thus contains all the twelve notes of the chromatic scale – all this nearly seventy years before Schoenberg! The dramatic lead into the main Allegro, with its whip-lash chords in the strings, was  impressively realised, Noseda establishing  a firm tempo and musical line here. It was taken as a real allegro as marked.  He achieved real clarity, especially in the wild string figurations, but I was surprised that he did not deploy antiphonal violins, which would have added extra clarity. Woodwinds and horns were audible in tutti passages with nicely balanced instrumental dynamics. There was an abundance of especially  exciting and dramatic moments, as in the C major fanfares heralded by the trumpets, depicting Faust’s proactive, virile and combative side. And the middle ‘Lento’ section, with woodwind and horns in conversation with an undulating violin figure, was well articulated and played. Especial compliments are due here to the LSO’s principal bassoon player. The return to the first dramatic C minor Allegro, with a stringendo build-up and with added force and drama, was delivered with a real sense of dramatic tension, no doubt enhanced by Noseda’s experience as an operatic conductor at Toscanini’s one time Teatro Regio Torino.   Liszt here is quite specific; his score is full of ‘con fuoco’, ‘agitato’ ‘sforzato’ markings., and Noseda fully realised each dynamic/rhythmic detail adding to  the seminal force and power of the whole movement. The strange and at times awe-inspiring and contrasted dramatic power and ferocity were all played with tremendous power, empathy and conviction by the LSO. Indeed I can’t remember them playing with such distinction recently.

 The second ‘Gretchen’ movement came off with a sure sense of line and engagement. The poetic, song-like ‘dolce amoroso’ in horns and woodwinds were delivered with eloquent phrasing and nicely judged rubato. And the Faust theme, in its ‘amorous’ form played pianissimo by the full orchestra – a magical moment – was well realised.  Occasionally I missed some of the sustained pp, ‘molto legato’ Liszt asks for in  the delicate contrasts he constructs between pp, ppp and m/f, but overall Noseda achieved a wonderful sense of line and contour, in fact similar to  the underrated, but great, Janos Ferencsik. Again the LSO was attentive to every nuance demanded by the conductor and score.

 It was a touch of brilliance on Liszt’s part to parody the Faust themes in the Mephistopheles movement. Mephistopheles as the spirit of negation – ‘der Geist, der stets verneint’ – cannot create. The Devil (Mephistopheles) can only destroy what others have built up. But in some ways, with all its parodistic orchestral virtuosity and quasi-references to, among others, Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bare Mountain this movement had me thinking of the old saying that ‘the devil has all the best tunes’! In its rhythmic exactitude and diversity it is the most technically challenging for any conductor, so how did Noseda score here? How did he and the orchestra manage the Faustian theme now in upward chromatic scales, then transformed into 6/8 from the 4/4 of the first movement?  This was all executed well with a masterful sense of clear orchestral balance.  There were one or two moments when the orchestral ensemble seemed a shade tentative but this was more than compensated for by Noseda’s care and exactitude  in the tricky transitions; for instance in the mid-movement sudden change of gear (rhythm, metre) into the grotesque fugue, where Noseda was most trenchant and convincing. All this was fully comparable to the classic interpretations by the likes of  Ferencsik, Ansermet and more recently Ivan Fischer and Riccardo Chailly with the superb Concertgebouw Orchestra.

 Noseda opted for Liszt’s first instrumental version of the work. Indeed he is something of a champion of this shorter version which he has recorded and played often. The instrumental conclusion which depicts Faust’s soul being borne aloft to the sound of the first Gretchen theme is about 5 to 6 minutes shorter than the later choral version, depending on the conductor’s chosen tempo. The choral version, male chorus with tenor, is taken from Goethe’s own Chorus Mysticus from ‘Faust’ and sings of the Eternal Feminine ‘Das Ewig Weibiche’ – a transfiguration of the Gretchen theme. Really it is a lot of romantic tosh praising women as modest, delicate, domestic and chaste, perfectly corresponding to the prevailing, at the time, ideology of patriarchy. I am surprised the issue of versions was not mentioned in the programme?  Ivan Fischer’s recording provides the choice of both versions. In a formal sense I prefer the choral version, more for the fact that it is in line with the epic proportions of the work aqnd also has an effective orchestral transition, which is omitted in the instrumental version. But it could be argued that the instrumental version is more succinct and economic. Liszt retained the latter for practical reasons to do with availability and cost  of a chorus and  a good tenor. With the prevailing ideology of ‘austerity’ these considerations are as relevant today as they were in Liszt’s time. The fee now for an international tenor alone could be astronomical! Noseda tonight certainly made a good case for the instrumental conclusion. Another advantage here is that you don’t have to listen to the sexist conclusion. But there will no doubt be    many who would say, with a certain amount of truth,  that we should listen to the choral conclusion in the context  of the prevailing belief systems of the time of its composition. Overall it will be a matter of individual choice for women and men.


Geoff Diggines