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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
La Damnation de Faust (1846) [117:13]*
La Mort de Cléopatre (1829) [20:56]**
Nicolai Gedda (Faust; tenor)*; Gabriel Bacquier (Méphistophélès; baritone)*; Dame Janet Baker (Marguerite; mezzo-soprano)* **; Pierre Thau (Brander; bass)*; Maria Peronne (Una voix; soprano)*; Choeurs de l’Opéra de Paris*; Orchestre de Paris*; London Symphony Orchestra**/Georges Prêtre*; Sir Alexander Gibson**
rec. October 1969, Salle Wagram, Paris*, November 1969, Watford Town Hall, London**
Includes notes and synopsis in English, French and German
EMI CLASSICS 0946 3 81493 2 3 [76:55 + 61:14]

Prêtre’s “Damnation de Faust” has never enjoyed a very good press over the years and I’m not surprised. I get the idea he’d have been happier conducting Gounod’s “Faust”. He veers between a sort of generalized expressivity and a sort of generalized heartiness. All Berlioz’s dazzling orchestral effects are swept under the carpet. The Will-o’-the-Wisps seem to have strayed in from a folksy Smetana opera while the “Amen” chorus has not a trace of drunken ribaldry. It is taken at face value, the sort of thing Sir John Stainer or some other Anglican worthy might have written at that point. The orchestral playing is often imprecise and the ragged consonants with which the choir too often closes its phrases suggests it was a bad day for all concerned. With Munch and Markevich before him, Sir Colin Davis and several others after him, Prêtre’s “Damnation de Faust” sounds like a record that didn’t need to be made.

It does have some of the finest singers of the day, though. Nicolai Gedda and Gabriel Bacquier both turn in excellent professional performances. Perhaps they would have produced extra frisson if stretched by the conductor. Dame Janet Baker was evidently determined to stretch herself no matter what the others did. I was prepared to find her too “regal”, even matronly, for Marguerite, but I needn’t have worried. Having recently made the transition from contralto to mezzo-soprano she was now displaying her upper register in all its early refulgence. Through skilful use of portamento she is able to suggest vulnerability and morbidezza and to suggest a French colouring one would hardly imagine from her dark-hewn “Sea Pictures” of only a few years earlier. By commanding attention in everything she does she shows what’s missing in the rest of the performance. Admirers will want to hear this. But they are warned that the scenes in which Dame Janet takes part amount to 26 minutes, so you’ll be paying good money for an hour and a half that isn’t worth listening to. Fans of Gedda and Bacquier may think I am being too hard, but can they really claim that the best of these singers is here?

The question of what conductor, of those available to EMI, might have been more profitably engaged in Prêtre’s place finds at least one answer in the final track. In 1969 the Scottish Opera production of “Les Troyens” had proved a landmark in the careers of Scottish Opera, Sir Alexander Gibson, Dame Janet Baker and the opera itself. It was rapidly followed by the Covent Garden production under Sir Colin Davis, and that is the one that got recorded. Whatever the respective claims of Gibson and Davis, many expressed their disappointment that the Dido of the first complete “Troyens” on disc was consequently Josephine Veasey and not Dame Janet Baker. The latter did at least record, with Gibson and the LSO, a few scenes from the opera, coupled with “La Mort de Cléopâtre”, included here.

We can hear at once that this is a conductor attuned to the flamboyance, the visionary quality and – in the long-drawn melodies – the sheer strangeness of Berlioz’s world. Note the weird brass chords at the beginning of the funeral march about half-way through. They typify the sort of writing that gets its proper colour under Gibson but not under Prêtre. So Dame Janet has the right setting for her quite extraordinary performance. Her range of tone and timbre is incredible, establishing her as a great singing actress, not merely a singer. And all put at the service of the music as she embraces a whole gamut of emotions.

So 47 minutes of the package are a must-have …

What is needed, then, is for EMI to forget about the Prêtre “Faust” as such, and to stop expecting people to buy a “twofer” of which only two tracks of CD 1 are of real value, and reissue the original Baker/Gibson disc in its entirety. It could then be filled up with as many of the scenes from “Faust” containing Dame Janet Baker as will go – quite probably all of them since the original LP was unlikely to have exceeded 54 minutes. Now THAT would be a disc in a million …

Christopher Howell 


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