"The problem with playing Liszt," conductor Roger Norrington said before
leading the San Francisco Symphony in an all-Liszt concert Thursday night, "is
that everything he wrote is either very big or very small."
Norrington was referring to the practical problems of timing, in particular
the way his pairing of the 15-minute "Totentanz" and "A Faust Symphony" --
which clocks in at 70 minutes -- had produced a shortish and lopsided program.
That was easily rectified by adding an encore, the piano solo "Funerailles" in
an eloquent and probing rendition by Konstantin Lifschitz.
But Norrington had put his finger as well on a key interpretive challenge
in Liszt's music. Much of the composer's work is overstuffed and flirts with
the grandiose, while in another vein he can border on the clattery and
simplistic. The canny performer has to thread a path between these two dangers.
Norrington's strategy, in his first Davies Symphony Hall appearance in
nearly four years, was a characteristic one, reminiscent of his approach to
Beethoven, Berlioz and other composers. He acknowledged the problem, then
simply brushed past it with fleet tempos, sharply defined textures and crisp,
To a certain extent, his ploy worked, producing an evening of Liszt that
consistently dodged any hint of bombast. If the performances lacked something
in plushness or Romantic intensity, the music's vigor and fluidity were ample
In the Symphony's first performance in nearly 30 years of "A Faust
Symphony" -- a triptych of elaborate character sketches of Faust, Gretchen and
Mephistopheles -- Norrington deftly teased out the theatrical immediacy that
can sometimes lurk behind Liszt's oratory.
The opening "Faust" movement especially, with its melodic themes mapping
various aspects of the protagonist, emerged as a series of clearly delineated
dramatic images (some brilliantly sweet-toned playing by principal trumpeter
Glenn Fischthal helped things along). And in the concluding depiction of
Mephistopheles (a sardonic parody of the Faust music, punctuated by derisive
whistling from the piccolo), that same pictorial sharpness threw Goethe's
characters into clear relief.
Where Norrington's businesslike efficiency worked less well was in the
"Gretchen" movement, which in spite of luminous solo turns by oboist William
Bennett and violist Geraldine Walther, missed something of the music's
Lifschitz, a 26-year-old Ukrainian-born pianist, made a fascinating
Symphony debut during the evening's first half, a beguiling mixture of
diffidence and deep seriousness.
In the "Totentanz," with its bravura variations on the "Dies Irae"
plainchant, Lifschitz seemed determined to underplay even the most fiendish
keyboard passages -- as though the difficulties in Liszt's virtuoso writing
were hardly worth breaking a sweat over. This had the effect of drawing a
listener even closer in, and the results -- not only in the finger-busting
fireworks displays but in the more inward, lyrical passages as well -- were
SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY: The subscription program repeats at 8 p.m. tonight
in Davies Symphony Hall. Tickets: $29-$85. Call (415) 864-6000 or go to www.sfsymphony.org.
E-mail Joshua Kosman at email@example.com.