Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Franz Liszt's "Second" Symphony: Dante's Inferno, and then a gentle salvation (and an optional ending)

Franz Liszt composed a “Symphony #2”, the “Dante”, and I have a Varese Sarabande recording from 1982 with the Utah Symphony Orchestra conducted by Varujan Kojian. 

The first movement, in D Minor, called “Inferno” running 18 minutes, will sound familiar, echoing Liszt’s orchestral tone poem idiom, with lots of use of the augmented fourth interval (tritone).  Essentially in sonata form there are some thematic similarities to the opening movement of the Faust Symphony (which is in C Minor).  The music becomes extremely violent toward the end and crashes to a close, using the augmented fourth interval until the very last “fortissimo” octaves on D.

The second section (22 minutes)  has two movements, a quiet Purgatorio, emphasizing the strings, and then a restful Magnificat, where the Utah Chorale joins in (directed by Newell Wrighr). From a purely musical sense, it seems anticlimactic.  So Liszt provided an optional coda, of 55 seconds, ending loudly and triumphantly on a B Major chord, which is an odd relationship with the first movement.
The CD notes say that the optional ending was not available on the original LP release.  It also expresses the opinion that it seems superfluous, at least in the mind of the author of the liner notes.  It provides the ability to program the CD playback to start the coda three seconds after the quiet original ending, but the CD itself allows about 40 seconds at the end before the coda starts.  To my ear, the coda makes sense if played without pause.  The work as a whole should end triumphantly, depending, of course, how you perceive the Afterlife.  I wondered what the Mormon Church (in Utah) thinks of Liszt’s somewhat self-serving use of theology – Liszt liked to please the Pope. 

The work could be compared with the 16-minute "Dante Sonata" for piano (March 15, 2009), also in D Minor, and ending triumphantly (unlike the B Minor).   
Optional endings have been provided at other times.  The Liszt “De Profundis” (July 4)  fantasy provides an optional bombastic outburst on D Major chords (which is quite overwhelming) after an original quiet ending. The Prokofiev Symphony #7 in C# Minor (called “comfort food” by some) ends quietly, but offers an optional romp of about 10 measures afterward to end loud and fast.  I’ve always wondered if Dvorak could have done this with the “New World”, because I’ve never understood the sudden diminuendo on the last chords.  Some conductors end Schubert symphonies (especially the Great) with diminuendo on the last chord, but others don’t. “Completed” symphonies (Schubert’s Unfinished, #8 – which really works well when the “missing” movements are performed, and #10, and Mahler’s #10, can offer temptation to play with endings.  

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