“Ah, God! but Art is long, And Life, alas! is fleeting.” [Goethe: Faust Part 1]

In all honesty, Goethe could have been referring to Liszt's Faust Symphony which – at around seventy minutes – can feel like a very long work of art indeed. It formed the bloated climax of a demonic date with the Grim Reaper, who loomed large over Sir Antonio Pappano's “Total Liszt” programme with the LSO. The Mephistophelean symphony followed hot on the sulphurous heels of Liszt's Totentanz, given a scorching rendition by Alice Sara Ott.

Alice Sara Ott © Jonas Becker
Alice Sara Ott
© Jonas Becker

Before diving into the Barbican's bowels of hell, Pappano opened with Lo sposalizio from the second volume of the Années de pèlerinage, based on Raphael's painting Lo sposalizio della Vergine (The Marriage of the Virgin Mary) which Liszt saw in Milan. Here, it came clothed in Salvatore Sciarrino's shimmering orchestration, tubular bells, sleigh bells and glockenspiel flecks giving it the atmosphere of an extra episode in Respighi's Fountains of Rome. Sciarrino draws out some unusual colours – the work opens with piccolo paired with bass clarinet! – which the bespectacled Pappano moulded with his usual care and attention.

On another trip across to Italy, Liszt visited Pisa where he was much taken with the 14th-century fresco Il trionfo della morte (The Triumph of Death), which depicts the angel of death wielding a scythe at her victims. This reminded Liszt of the skeletal figures depicted in Hans Holbein's woodcut Totentanz (Dance of Death) and they became the inspiration for his own Totentanz, a punchy danse macabre for piano and orchestra.

Alice Sara Ott, whose last Liszt with the LSO was a sizzling account of the Second Piano Concerto, launched herself fearlessly into this diabolical work. In a billowing black gown, her bass chords thudded while the brass intoned the Dies irae motif which Liszt then treats to half a dozen variations. Ott's trills were fierce, her glissandos pugnacious, her staccato repeated notes rattled out with terrific precision. While her left hand pounded the Dies irae, flames flickered from her right hand along the keyboard's upper reaches. Yet Ott's devil wore an impish grin, the pianist exchanging gleeful smiles over her shoulder with leader Carmine Lauri, and she caressed the quieter moments, enveloping the score in rippled silk. Pappano and the LSO were devilish accomplices, leering horns, sinuous clarinets and col legno string slaps and spiccato effects rattling like skeletons. Ott dowsed the inferno with Chopin's cooling Nocturne in C sharp minor, limpidly phrased. What a spectacular pianist she is.

It's ironic that Liszt could condense Totentanz into barely a quarter of an hour and yet allowed his Faust Symphony to sprawl so badly. It contains some memorable music – given the full red-blooded treatment by Pappano, conducting with operatic abandon – but themes are recycled so often that interest sags. It was Berlioz who first introduced Liszt to Goethe's Faust, inspiring him to write sketches, first for an opera, then a symphony where each movement depicts one of the main characters: Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles.

The LSO brass blazed its way through the main Faust theme, the piccolo shrieked and Nigel Thomas launched himself at the timpani with abandon. Mephistopheles' movement, however, is nowhere near as terrifying as the Totentanz, while the impact of the finale – despite strong contributions from the Gentlemen of the London Symphony Chorus – was hampered by a weedy organ and an overtaxed tenor. The more memorable moments came in the Gretchen movement, Bobby Cheng's creamy oboe tone duetting with solo viola, muted strings offering affectionate support.

Total Liszt. Totally bonkers, if not always totally compelling.