Today, Franz Liszt is remembered as a great pianist and a 19th-century figure of almost rock star proportions, but he's hardly ever mentioned as a symphonist. Yet it was the Hungarian composer's latter aspect that visiting conductor Roger Norrington illuminated so brilliantly in Thursday's San Francisco Symphony program at Davies Symphony Hall.
In his first guest appearance at the symphony's podium since 1998, the English conductor led a massive yet beautifully detailed performance of "A Faust Symphony." The all-Liszt program, which repeats tonight at 8, also includes two of the composer's famous keyboard works -- "Totentanz" for piano and orchestra, and "Funerailles" for solo piano -- with Ukranian pianist Konstantin Lifschitz as soloist.
Norrington, who has in past seasons presided over S.F. Symphony performances of Beethoven, Mozart and Mendelssohn, shaped the "Faust Symphony" with a masterful hand. Composed for large orchestra, men's chorus and tenor soloist, the 70-minute work may strike some as a perfect example of Romantic excess. Yet there was much to savor in this conductor's dramatic, eloquent and superbly paced reading.
Absent from the symphony's repertoire since 1973, this version of the Faust legend may also come as a revelation to many of those already familiar with Goethe's verse drama, or with Berlioz's "La Damnation de Faust." "A Faust Symphony" is written in three long movements (leading some to argue that it's a symphony in name only), titled "Faust," "Gretchen" and "Mephistopheles," after Goethe's text. The fourth movement, a choral finale, was added several years later.
Each movement is distinct in character, and Norrington traced a cohesive line from one to the next. There were thrilling episodes of pinpoint unity from the violins in the "Faust" movement; the brass blared convincingly, and the brooding low strings added to the atmospheric conditions. There were lovely contributions from the woodwinds in the "Gretchen" movement, which contains the symphony's most unabashedly Romantic writing. And the turbulent scherzando music of "Mephistopheles" was incisively played.
In the finale, the men of Vance George's Symphony Chorus sang with great power and sensitivity, and the soloist, tenor John Mark Ainsley, dispatched his part with flair.
The evening's other soloist was just as impressive. Lifschitz, who makes his S.F. Symphony debut on this program, brought formidable technique and a great deal of poetic temperament to Liszt's "Totentanz" (Dance of Death). Its variations -- which are based on "Dies irae," the 13th-century Latin chant outlining the Last Judgment -- include a quote from Berlioz's "Symphonie fantastique," and range from profoundly introspective to fiercely flamboyant. Norrington seemed to relish each emotional shift, and Lifschitz plumbed the depths with focused intensity.
The pianist also found a deep well of feeling in "Funerailles," the brief yet potent solo work Liszt composed shortly after the death of Chopin. It was a transcendent performance, and one of the best things about it was watching Norrington, seated in a chair behind the violins, listening with rapt attention to this very gifted young artist.
Georgia Rowe covers classical music for the Times. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.