BBC Philharmonic, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
Tuesday 20 January 2004
To perform the orchestral music of Franz Liszt with the sympathy and sensitivity it demands, first find the right conductor. There aren't that many around. In its principal conductor, Gianandrea Noseda, the BBC Philharmonic has just the right man. And in an interestingly planned all-Liszt programme, Noseda brought the composer into sharper focus as a fascinating and important influence in the 19th century.
Of the bombastic vulgarity that is all too readily associated with Liszt, once dismissed for his Hungarian background and religious fervour as "half gipsy, half priest", there was not a trace here. And where some, in dealing with the trickier aspects of his music, simply play fast and loud - making it even more flamboyant and excessive - Noseda brought refinement, subtlety and colour.
The programme featured three of the threads that ran through the composer's long life. There was the Abbé Liszt's Franciscan side, in the rarely performed orchestral versions of Two Legends. The first, St Francis of Assisi Preaching to the Birds, contains vivid pre-echoes of Messiaen in its woodwind twitterings and stringy tremolandos. The second Legend is based on another St Francis - this time of Paolo - forced by a truculent ferryman to walk on water, across the Straits of Messina. It opens with a shimmering introduction of a chorale, which sails through the tempestuous deeps only to be succeeded by another religious quotation at the end. By this time the saint has safely weathered the pictorial orchestral storms that threaten to engulf him, the turbulence at the climax beautifully judged by Noseda and his players.
Liszt's Second Piano Concerto presents a different picture of the composer, as a virtuoso pianist. Enrico Pace, the winner of the Liszt Piano Competition, covered the whole keyboard with ease, conveying the contrasts between the work's mercurial pianissimos, dramatic outbursts and bravura passage work. That it was the soloist's show never detracted from the BBC PO's responsive account of its part, stylish in phrasing and shading.
In the Faust Symphony, three character sketches of Goethe's protagonists, Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles, we had yet another of Liszt's obsessions. The first movement, dedicated to the Faustian hero himself, contained some beautifully sculpted lines, the wayward opening setting the scene for an expressive realisation of Liszt's vision, intimate in the solo strings of the central Gretchen section and devilishly agile in the Mephistophelean finale. The purely orchestral ending of this three-part original version said it all: Gretchen had redeemed Faust, without the help of any fourth movement and men's choir. It spoke volumes for Noseda's interpretation and the orchestra's trans- formation from good to evil.
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