Guest conductor Riccardo Chailly led the Berliner Philharmoniker in a concert transmitted live in the Digital Concert Hall that centered on the Faust Symphony, but opened with Wagner's Faust Overture.
Both of these works aspire to share the personality and attitude of characters from the play but not to unfold imaginary scenes. They are psychological. Where they differ was in approach.
Wagner cast his "solitary Faust" in very clear sonata form with themes derived from a murky introduction. Chailly leaned into the strong cadences that marked the close of each section and heightened the collision that happened when the second theme group emerged suddenly from its punctuated cadence, without transition, in the recapitulation. He cast a look of surprise to set the mood of the woodwind fanfare that centered the development, and took time as this wonderful music later disintegrated. The orchestra played brilliantly articulate figures throughout the overture with lively physicality and crunchy dotted rhythms.
Commentators have long argued details of the form in the first movement of Liszt's Faust Symphony. But what is most important is that its music represents both restless and heroic intentions.
There were significant meditations given in bassoon soliloquies. The camera angles of the production clarified these moments, and helped us focus on hearing the Allegro impetuoso as a parallelism that makes it a third paragraph of the introduction. These reflective moments marked most important closings in the movement.
When the Allegro agitato returned in C# minor, a half-step higher than in the exposition, it represents a higher-level confusion in the central character it represents. Chailly got an almost panicked sound from the orchestra, and when the music froze on an A-flat, the return of the augmented chords from the introduction felt as if we had moved back in time. It didn't matter where the development actually started. It was music for a character who had become unstuck from time.
The gentle but surprisingly agile gestures that opened the second movement were played like intimate chamber music in the wind section. Most impressive were connections made in the central panel of this movement to the corresponding themes as played in the first movement. The structure could not have been made more transparent.
Liszt did not give Mephistopheles a unique personality. Instead the devil is expressed as a distortion and parody of music associated with Faust. This music only works if it is played with more humor than sarcasm. Again the music suddenly froze on an A-flat. In Liszt's view of Mephistopheles, even the devil could not mess with Gretchen, and her theme was presented in D-flat major with a wonderful horn solo accompanied by harp.
And it was this key, D-flat major, in which the tenor Nikolai Schukoff addressed us. He was able to float the high lyric lines of this passage with a warm sound and very convincing musicality.
This was a program of careful listening. It was filled with detail, ideas, and great energy.