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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
La damnation de Faust (1828 and 1845/6) Performed in concert
Marguérite ... Anne Sofie Von Otter
Faust ... Keith Lewis
Méphistophélès ... José Van Dam
Brander ... Peter Rose
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti
rec. live, 1989 Promenade Concert, Royal Albert Hall, London.
ARTHAUS DVD 102 023 [134:00]


This 1989 live performance of Berlioz’s dramatic masterpiece marked the start of Sir Georg Solti’s farewell tour as conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Hector Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust is normally heard in concert performance and is just, very occasionally staged as a full opera. Although Gramophone gave the thumbs up to ArtHaus’s earlier DVD release of the 1999 Salzburg Festival performance under Sylvain Cambreling (ARTHAUS MUSIK 100 003), this reviewer was singularly unimpressed by its weird sets, costumes and odd stage management. Surely the text, as used by Berlioz, is vivid and graphic enough to enable concert audiences’ imaginations to take wing? And of course a DVD video allows a fuller appreciation of Berlioz’s brilliant use of orchestral colour and the large-scale choral writing.

This live Royal Albert Hall Proms performance is very impressive. Solti’s reading is rivetingly dramatic and he is supported by three excellent soloists. The rhythms are lightly, yet tightly sprung, tension never slackening; hear the brass blaze in the ‘Marche hongroise’, the woodwinds dance in ‘Menuet de follets’ and listen to the sheer ferocity and attack of the climactic Ride to the Abyss as Méphistophélès triumphantly claims the soul of the deluded Faust. The Chicago Symphony Chorus impress too, well-drilled, fully committed, voices coloured to emotions and scenes ranging from the lively charms of peasant life, through bawdy drunken celebrations, the ebullient singing of soldiers and students, to demonic delight as Faust is claimed in hell. Finally there is piety as Marguerite’s soul is saved.

The gorgeous, pearly-voiced Swedish mezzo-soprano, Anne Sophie Von Otter, was 34 (and looking much younger) at the time of this recording and in her prime. She is a warm Marguérite, vulnerable yet sensual and fierily passionate as she falls under the spell of Faust. Her big arias, ‘The King of Thule’ and ‘Romance’ are delivered with arresting intensity, her lower register so rich and her top notes secure and pure. Keith Lewis is splendid too as a Faust full of ennui, as we meet him. He then falls easy prey to the devil’s machinations, before becoming increasingly ardent as he pursues his ideal love, Marguérite. José van Dam has made something of a speciality of Méphistophélès. He is outstanding here; relishing his darkly sardonic role, sweetly taunting, tempting Faust, jovial in the ‘Song of the Flea’, then diabolical in his final triumph.

A fine tribute to Solti’s triumphant 22-year association with the Chicago Symphony. A glorious performance full of dramatic intensity with the three soloists at the their peak.

Ian Lace



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