The scheduled conductor for this morning’s concert by the Mozarteum Orchestra got ill last week, leaving the orchestra to scramble to find a replacement who was not only available, but could also take over the identical program of two seldom-performed works: Wagner‘s Faust Overture and Liszt‘s Faust Symphony. In stepped Frank Beermann, who recently left his post after a decade as general music director in Chemnitz to become a freelancer and had this weekend free to rush to Salzburg’s Great Festival House.
Beermann and the orchestra don’t know each other. The orchestra also had not performed these works before. So under the circumstances Beermann took a deliberate, angular, approach. This worked for the Wagner piece and for the final movement of the Liszt. It caused the first two movements of the Liszt to drag. Still, considering they were practically sight-reading the music, the Mozarteum Orchestra’s natural musicality came to the fore, coaxed by Beermann, and in that the concert proved a success.
The Wagner work is from his early period – he had considered an opera based on Goethe’s Faust, which he never wrote, but Liszt had encouraged him to arrange some sketches as a concert overture (originally conceived as the first movement of a series of linked tone poems, which Wagner also never wrote). Despite truncating his project, Wagner already demonstrated his sense of theater, however, and Beermann successfully inspired the orchestra to the dramatic.
Liszt ended up writing the multi-movement tone poem based on Faust that Wagner never wrote. While it does contain some great passages (particularly in the Berlioz-inspired third movement depicting Mephistopheles – apparently it was Berlioz who had introduced Liszt to Goethe’s work), it probably takes a little more effort to keep a performance of this piece compelling for well over an hour. The fault is Liszt’s (uncharacteristically for him, as it happens), who never properly edited his work – this was not one of his better efforts, and indeed instead of editing he kept adding bits to it (including a final chorus – sung here by the Chorus Viennensis and tenor soloist Toby Spence).
Back in the days when I used to have my own Sunday morning radio show, I programmed these two works followed by Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (which includes a setting of the final scene of Faust). Now that combination in a real concert might have been too ambitious, but it would be the logical next development of this music and I would have gladly stayed. Instead, I came home and cooked breakfast.