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Haydn, Wagner, Schnittke: Vladimir Jurowski, Soloists, Moscow Conservatory Chamber Choir, London Philhamonic Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, London, 18.11.2009 (GDn)

Haydn: Symphony no.22 (The Philosopher)

Wager: Prelude and Good Friday Spell from Parsifal
Schnittke: Excerpts from the opera The History of D. Johann Faustus


Stephen Richardson - Dr Faustus
Anna Larsson – Mephistophilia
Andrew Watts – Mephistophiles
Markus Brutscher – Narrator
Annabel Arden - Director


Between two worlds – a man in between – Alfred Schnittke struggled his whole life to make sense of his competing cultural affiliations, so finding musical contexts for his work is no mean task. The London Philharmonic went about programming the first of their Schnittke season concerts by acknowledging the composer’s German side, a side no better demonstrated than in his Faust opera, which closed the programme. Between them, the Haydn and Wagner of the first half represent the polar extremes of the German identity to which Schnittke felt drawn, and, as his Faust amply illustrates, there is a healthy dose of both composer’s influence in his music. Haydn’s surprises and his liberal approach to generic conventions shine through, while Wagner, by contrast, makes his presence felt in the deep unity between drama and religious conviction that underpins Schnittke’s Faust projects.

So-so performance standards in the first half suggested that the majority of the rehearsal time for this concert had been given over to the Schnittke. Haydn was presented in a curious combination of modern and period performance traditions, with a large string section accompanied by harpsichord and hand horns. Jurowski gave precise, if minimal directions, aware that his presence was less necessary than usual, and that the orchestra would play this music just as well in his absence.The Wagner came across as somewhat staid. The tempi were a rigid and a little on the fast side. Given Jurowski’s usually keen sense for operatic atmosphere, I was surprised how little of the magic of Parsifal came through in these excerpts. The huge string section that had been assembled for the second half helped though, allowing Wagner’s long crescendos to start from nothing and build to spectacular heights.

The performance of Schnittke’s The History of D. Johann Faustus was also described in the programme as being of ‘excerpts’, giving an indication of the long and painful journey the work has been through to reach its current form. Schnittke was first approached to write an opera based on Faust in the 1970s, and initially relished the opportunity, the legend having occupied his imagination since the earliest days of his childhood. On that occasion the opera was not to be, but the work he had done on the score contributed to a cantata, which was premiered in 1983 to great acclaim. In the early 1990s, and after two serious strokes, Schnittke returned to the Faust opera project, envisaging a work in which his Faust cantata formed the third and final act. This work was premiered in Hamburg in 1995, with no mention given of it being an incomplete score. In fact, the music staff at the Hamburg Opera had made some significant changes to the score that Schnittke had submitted, much to his chagrin. By this time, he was again seriously ill and confined to a Moscow hospital and unable to intercede.

Describing the performance this evening then as ‘excerpts’ does more justice to the composer’s stated intentions. All the editorial additions from the premiere performance (and this is the first performance since) have been removed, and at no serious cost. The second act was somewhat elided, but the first act was complete. The semi-staging was a minimal affair, an IKEA sofa, an old arm chair, costumes and actions, but given the minimal dramatic profile of the first two acts, any more would seem excessive. There is certainly a stylistic disjunction between the 1990s music at the start of the work and the 1980s music of the cantata/act 3. The first two acts have an admirable consistency and pacing, but lack the lavish orchestral colour of Schnittke’s greatest music and are notable restrained in their polystylistic digressions. Schnittke locates the drama squarely in the vocal parts, which pose considerable challenges for each of the singers. Extremes of tessitura are the rule rather than the exception, and while each of the singers coped, none made it sound easy. One great effect that Schnittke uses in these first two acts is to take Dr Faustus, sung here by Stephen Richardson, right to the bottom of his bass register, and then keep going in slow chromatic descent right into the profundo register.

Amplification of the voices was necessary for this and other vocal effects, which is unlikely to please the purists. But then, purity is exactly what Schnittke’s music opposes, as became abundantly clear in the last act. One advantage of this music acting as the last movement of an opera rather than as a cantata is that it better justifies stage presentation, and this is where the semi-staging really came to life. Of the four characters, the real stars are the soprano and countertenor who share the role of mephestophiles. Anna Larsson and Andrew Watts really made the most of these parts, and revelled in the ghoulish tango with which Schnittke despatches Faust to his fate. I’ve always thought that Schnittke’s tangos lacked authenticity, the work of a man living in a less Piazzola-saturated musical environment than our own. This reading demonstrated that all they really need is passionate performance, be it from the harpsichord, the soloists or even the choir. Andrew Watts’ tango moves were executed in stockings and high heels, a fabulously unsettling sexual ambiguity for this deeply disturbing climax.

The performances in this last act were of a uniformly high standard. The orchestra made every one of Schnittke’s unusual effects work. Many of them take skilled execution, for instance the countertenor soloist glissanoing around his highest register, accompanied in unison by flexatone and sliding trombone. Honours also to the Moscow Conservatory Chamber Choir. Despite the German subject and German language of the text, Schnittke’s choral writing in this piece remains more closely affiliated to Orthodox traditions than to anything Teutonic, and so a Russian choir was a natural choice. But for a small choir made up of music students to create such aural impact, and to cope with the considerable technical demands of tessitura and dynamics in the score was a staggering feat.

What now for Schnitte’s Faust opera? At this, its second public outing, it seemed like a work destined for curiosity status at best. In the worst case, Schnittke’s later additions run the risk of distracting from the music of the cantata, which is undoubtedly one of his greatest scores. On the other hand, all three of Schnittke’s mature operas have something to offer open minded audiences, and none has yet had a full staging in the UK. However, no charity or even good will is required to justify wider performance of the Faust Cantata. It is a work that would serve any large-scale festival programme magnificently. So how about a performance at the Proms?

Gavin Dixon

This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on November 24th

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