LISZT: Dante Symphony. Tasso, Lament and Triumph.
London Oratory School Schola; London Symphony Orch/Leon Botstein, cond.
TELARC 80613 (F) (DDD) TT: 63:54

Arkiv lists no fewer than nine in-stock versions of Eine Symphonie zu Dantes Divina Commedia, to give the work its full title, plus a tenth that can be special-ordered from Germany for lots of Euros, by the late Giuseppe Sinopoli and the Dresdener Staatskapelle on DGG. Now we have an eleventh and overall fine one from Telarc—so good in fact that I found myself listening twice to a piece that had always left me wanting music I could “get into,” like Dante into the Inferno and Purgatorio with Virgil as his guide. Botstein fills the bill remarkably, and here has the London Symphony (rather than the Philharmonic) to fulfill his bidding. The strings are extraordinarily seductive in the lengthy “Francesca e Paolo” love music in Part I (the cover reproduces them entwined in Ary Scheffer’s famous painting of 1851). Elsewhere they also glow, while the brass make an internationally companionable effect. This is playing of great beauty and persuasion in a Watford Hall recording made last January with James Mallinson producing and Everett Porter of Polyhymnia at the controls. In SACD, it should be a “sound spectacular,” as they used to say at those semi-annual trade shows.

A few points about the text, since Morton Solvik’s program note is uncommonly cursory for a Telarc production. Liszt wrote four versions of this two-part work, finished in 1856. The second version abandoned sketches for a “Paradiso” movement at the suggestion of his future son-in-law, Wagner. The third version added a “Magnificat” for mixed chorus at the close of “Purgatorio” followed by an orchestral fade-out. The final version substituted an affirmatively loud coda, and it is this last one that Botstein conducts. He also uses boy sopranos and altos (the London Oratory School Schola) rather than women’s voices in the “Magnificat” with ethereal effect. If I’ve withheld full-out praise of Botstein in the past—although development was sensed, certainly, on a Reger disc of recent vintage (review)—caveats are out the window. The accompanying Tasso, lamento e trionfo (likewise revised after its premiere in 1849) is additional validation of a real feeling for Romantic music from the period that ended with World War One.

There was room on the disc for a fourth work—Orpheus strikes me as a stylistically suitable companion piece for the Dante Symphony—but what’s here is so persuasive, so lovingly crafted by Botstein that to ask for more risks sounding greedy. Should you, in closing, have given more than a passing thought to the purchase of Daniel Barenboim’s Teldec version with the Berlin Philharmonic, be advised that he taffy-pulled the Dante Symphony for 50 minutes—not to Liszt’s advantage—whereas Botstein clocks in at 42:10. (Other versions take between 40 and 45 minutes, but none that I’ve heard are of this keepsake caliber.)

R.D. (November 2003)