Barenboim disappoints in Liszt's 'Dante Symphony'

June 19, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Liszt, "Dante Symphony," performed by the Berlin Philharmonic and conductor Daniel Barenboim, "Dante Sonata," performed by pianist Daniel Barenboim (Teldec 9031-77340-2): Barenboim has always played a good deal of Liszt (this is his second recording of the "Dante Sonata"), but so far as I know this is his first recording of one of Liszt's giant orchestral works. Liszt was a great reader of Dante, Shakespeare, Homer, Goethe and Milton -- he mistakenly thought that absorbing such great literature might make his soul as great and as sensitive as Chopin's -- and the "Dante Symphony" is a tribute to his literary voraciousness. By no stretch of the imagination is it a symphony. It's two tone poems -- one based on the "Inferno" and the other on the "Purgatorio" -- topped off by a "Magnificat," which the composer supplies instead of a depiction of the poet's "Paradiso." It's a garish, wonderful work that only Liszt could have written.

Unfortunately, Barenboim's performance is not a good one. The playing he gets from the Berlin orchestra is fabulous; this is the only performance of this insane piece I've heard in which the orchestra does not seem to be straining. But a successful performance of this work needs a sense of strain, of being about to careen out of the orbit of normality. Barenboim's interpretation just doesn't have this character -- in fact, it doesn't have much character at all -- and it turns the composer's wicked cocktail into a tepid glass of milk. Barenboim's reading of the "Dante Sonata" is not much better. There is an interesting touch here and there, but a pianist with hands as small as his has no business performing Liszt. The puny spread of his fingers shows in the forced sound he obtains (it cannot be disguised by the over-miking) and in the cautiousness he displays in the composer's precipitous double octaves.

Sibelius, Violin Concerto in D Minor and Serenade for Violin and Orchestra, performed by Julian Rachlin and the Pittsburgh Symphony, Lorin Maazel conducting, Sibelius, "En Saga," performed by the Pittsburgh and Maazel (Sony Classical SK 53272). Sibelius, Violin Concerto, performed by David Oistrakh and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Nils-Eric Fougstedt conducting, Sibelius, Symphony No. 7 and "Tapiola," performed by the Helsinki Philharmonic, Sir Thomas Beecham conducting (Ondine ODE 809-2): Maazel and the Pittsburgh are in the process of recording a Sibelius cycle (the conductor's second), and this performance of the concerto is a winner. Rachlin, who must now be about 20, made an enormous impression here in Baltimore a few seasons back performing one of the Saint-Saens concertos, a glittering virtuoso piece which he endowed with extraordinary freshness of feeling. In the much greater Sibelius concerto, he produces even more impressive results. He makes light of the piece's technical difficulties -- the double stops of the second movement and the hurtling changes of time in the danse macabre of the final movement hold no terrors for him -- and he responds to the musical challenges with real nobility of feeling. The accompaniment by Maazel and the Pittsburgh in the concerto and their playing in the filler pieces are excellent.

But good as Rachlin's is -- and it's the best Sibelius concerto since that of Cho-Liang Lin a few years back -- it can't begin to compare to that of Oistrakh, which was recorded at a Sibelius festival in Finland 40 years ago. In this piece only Jascha Heifetz matched Oistrakh's luminousness of tone, intensity of feeling and ability to play the final movement at something like the speed of light while preserving the spring of its dance rhythms. The sound is excellent, as is the orchestral support. This Oistrakh performance supersedes the violinist's other versions -- including one a few years later with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. But watch for a reissue of the violinist's excellent 1953 recording with Sixten Ehrling and the Stockholm Festival Orchestra on the Testament label. There is little that needs to be said about Beecham's recordings of the Symphony No. 7 and "Tapiola," which were taped at the same 1954 festival. This conductor was perhaps the composer's favorite interpreter -- Sibelius thought that Beecham's recording of the Symphony No. 6 was the best of any of his symphonies -- and the energy and concentration of these readings amply demonstrate why such was the case.

HEAR THE MUSIC

To hear excerpts of Sibelius' Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D minor, Op. 47, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6190 after you hear the greeting.

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