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Seen and Heard Promenade Concert Review

Prom 70 Berlioz, La damnation de Faust : Various soloists, Finchley Children’s Music Group, Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Boston Symphony Orchestra, James Levine (conductor) Royal Albert Hall, 6.9.2007 (JPr)


Hector Berlioz was the quintessential Byronic hero, with his life full of conflicting emotions and unrequited love, dismal failures as well as dramatic triumphs – a true ‘Romantic’. Much of his music is autobiographical and reflected in what Wagner called his 'devilishly confused musical idiom'. His music anticipated the tone-poems of Liszt and Strauss and his novel use of orchestral colour for his time inspired just about every major symphonic composer who was to follow him, most notably Gustav Mahler who certainly inherited his sense of musical irony.

The Faust story goes back to sixteenth century Germany, where there was a Dr Johann Georg Faust, an alchemist, possibly dabbling in the black arts. Marlowe wrote a play (The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus) in 1604  on the Faust theme, but it is Goethe's version (1808) that is of more literary importance. The theme of man's desire for knowledge, power and the essence of life that is only fulfilled by selling his soul to the devil has such a universal resonance so much so that the story has been constantly reinterpreted over the years. There have been no less than four operas (Berlioz, Gounod, Busoni, and Boito) based on the legend, plus many other works such as Robert Schumann's Scenes from Goethe's Faust and, let us not forget the second part of Gustav Mahler's Eighth Symphony.  Berlioz drew on a translation by Gérard de Nerval of the Goethe for his La damnation de Faust, an expansion in 1846 of an earlier 1829 work (Eight Scenes of Faust). It was unfortunately a failure when first put on at the Opéra-Comique, Paris, and remained so in his homeland during his lifetime though it was received much better when he conducted it elsewhere. The later work skilfully used the original eight scenes from his more youthful work.

Just a little background to Berlioz’s life up to the composition of La damnation de Faust reveals why the composer might have considered himself Faustian. In 1827, he was working as a chorus singer to earn money and in September that year, he encountered Shakespeare's Hamlet for the first time and he instantly became passionate about Shakespeare but also about an Irish actress performing Ophelia, Harriet Smithson. His feelings were at first unreciprocated and she thought he was mad. In 1828, he began English lessons to read more Shakespeare, and that year began writing music criticism. During the 1830 revolution Berlioz finished Symphonie Fantastique possibly his most famous work. Autobiographically subtitled 'Episodes in the Life of an Artist', it is inspired by his obsession with Smithson, his adolescent worship of Estelle Duboeuf and possibly a brief affair with Camille Moke, who later abandoned him. It was first performed in December that year. Among the audience was Franz Liszt who was highly impressed, and he became a good friend of Berlioz. In 1854 when Berlioz’s Faust score was published it was dedicated to Liszt causing him to compose his own Faust Symphony.

By late 1832, Harriet Smithson's career was failing, and she has money troubles and saw Berlioz as a way out of debt, so married him in 1833, with Liszt as a witness.

Niccolò Paganini, the great violin virtuoso commissioned Berlioz to write a work for viola and orchestra. When Berlioz sent him the first movement of the new work Paganini rejected it because he did not have enough to play. Eventually the music formed part of his 1834 Harold en Italie, a symphony for viola and orchestra. This was followed by the Grand Messe de Morts (Requiem) in 1837, Roméo et Juliette, a 'dramatic symphony', in 1839; and the 1840 Symphonie funèbre et triomphale.

Berlioz's son Louis was born in 1834, but his marriage was already disintegrating. Harriet, her acting career over was now drinking heavily and Berlioz began an affair with the singer Marie Recio who would later become his second wife after Harriet died. Possibly Marguerite has something of Marie in the Berlioz version of the Faust story?

Of course the Prom on Thursday 6 September was over shadowed by the news earlier that day of the death of Luciano Pavarotti and in his pre-concert announcement Nicholas Kenyon, director of the BBC Proms, announced that the conductor, James Levine the Boston Symphony Orchestra and all the singers were dedicating the performance to Pavarotti’s memory.

It was probably not the best of works to celebrate him with but it had the ideal conductor as James Levine had collaborated with Luciano Pavarotti in 139 performances at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, beginning in 1973, and said in an announcement: ‘Few singers in the history of the Metropolitan Opera have had the popularity with the general public and the enormous impact that Luciano Pavarotti had during his 36–year career with the company. Luciano’s voice was so extraordinarily beautiful and his delivery so natural and direct that his singing spoke right to the hearts of listeners whether they knew anything about opera or not. I will never forget the sheer magic of that voice, but I will also remember the warm, generous, and exuberant spirit of the man. He is, rightfully, a legend already – an artist whose recordings will be a reference for singers and opera- lovers for a long time to come.’

From the opening bars forward the music lifted the spirit as it invoked Spring, and throughout the performance Faust’s melancholy often seems secondary to the musical picture being conveyed by the music. This probably revealed to Mahler that music could have hidden meaning. James Levine plays close attention to the written text and allows the drama to unfold out of it. By the time we get to Scene Four for instance Faust has happily left the countryside and we believe him but the Easter Hymn and the wonderful singing of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus perhaps hint that he should have thought twice about it. Faust is endlessly melancholic and neither going to a beer cellar or finding love in Marguerite can help him escape from deep despair. So by the time we get to Scene 16 Faust is in such a well of despond that the immensity of it is vividly imagined in the sombre tone of the orchestra, and by Faust’s own plaintive soliloquy. For him he soon discovers life is over,and he is at the devil’s mercy.

The superbly clean playing of the Boston Symphony orchestra captured ever so well the broad dramatic sweep of the events that were unfolding. The Rákóczy March was magisterial, the first entrance to Auerbach’s cellar doomladen, the Ride to the Abyss and following Pandemonium cataclysmic. Yet where the music is delicate, it was played with an exquisite lightness of texture highlighting the composer’s deft orchestration. No more so than towards the end in the Epilogue and Apotheosis. The quality of the choral singing had been immense throughout with the Tanglewooders always projecting the sense of drama in what they were singing, for instance in the Amens in Scene Five they positively sounded a bit tipsy, and while as Will-O’-The Wisps they sang with delicate beauty. Now in the closing pages aided by the Finchley Children’s Music Group the singing was ethereal and very emotionally engaging. The ending in Levine’s hands had the transcendental potency of the end of Parsifal in the magical performances I heard him conduct at Bayreuth.

When I heard Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony recently they were at the start of a tour, here the Boston Symphony Orchestra was at the end of their first European one. Only did that become apparent in the slightly tired voices of the soloists, and it did nothing to spoil the occasion. Perhaps José van Dam makes up in experience for the lack of flexibility and power in his voice now but he is sufficiently lyrical, sardonic and sarcastic when required. Yvonne Naef has a fine, dusky voice that occasionally slid below the note but she sang a touching Ballad. Patrick Carfizzi made little impact as Brander. On the evening when the life of Pavarotti was celebrated Marcello Giordani revealed an effortless tenor voice as Faust, only tested briefly during his highest lines of music. He was world-weary and nothing much seemed to change his demeanour. However, when he first dreams of Marguerite and calls out her name, he does start to display a greater range of emotional intensity, and there is tenderness in his scenes with her. There might have been a ‘language barrier’ between Marcello Giordani’s Italianate timbre and his French character but even though he seemed a bit of a wimp I enjoyed a tenor voice that had no gear changes … especially on this sad night.

I thought I had finished my 2007 Proms season and this performance of La damnation de Faust was a bonus and as luck would have was just about the best of those I had attended. This is when music at the Royal Albert Hall works for the benefit of the audience and not those at home. Colourful, exciting, cinematic music, large choruses, and loud voices and the hall becomes filled with marvellous sound.


Jim Pritchard

Seen and Heard
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