Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
La Damnation de Faust (1846) [141:21]
Faust – Vinson Cole (tenor)
Méphistophélès – Thomas Quasthoff (baritone)
Marguerite – Charlotte Margiono (mezzo)
Brander – Jaco Huijpen (bass)
Netherlands Radio Choir
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. 20, 30 June 1999, Grote Zaal, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72517 [61:59 + 79:22]

Once upon a time, a country once renowned for its cultural life and relatively enlightened government policies on the arts and education held a general election. This election was held in a time of financial crisis; and in an atmosphere of artificially induced fear and resentment towards people from different countries propagated by people in nice, neat suits. The people in nice neat suits won, and set about rescuing their citizens from the financial crisis by getting rid of ‘elitist’ organisations in the arts. They stopped short of burning books in the streets, but only just ...

This release is part of the Netherlands Broadcasting Music Centre or MCO’s attempt to remain in existence. Imagine a government deciding overnight to do away with, say, all of the BBC orchestras and choirs. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how far those ripples would spread into British cultural life, but if there is one thing the anti-intellectual leadership of The Netherlands lack it’s imagination and forethought. The MCO website is in Dutch, but does have links to its orchestras whose sites have English versions, including the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in this Berlioz recording, a superb orchestra which has acclaimed releases on the Hyperion and BIS label – yes, that Shostakovich symphony cycle with Mark Wigglesworth. Let’s just do away with it all, OK everyone?

Well, erm, no – not OK, not by a long way. At the time of writing this situation is by no means resolved, and we are in no way out of the woods. The booklet for this CD contains an open letter from Bernard Haitink which uses terms such as “shameless outrage” and puts the nature of this very idea in a nutshell: “The moral condition of a society can generally be gauged by its flourishing cultural life ... Such a measure is therefore a bad omen for the state of things to come in The Netherlands.” I’m not going to stay on my soapbox much longer, but, given this subject is pretty much the entire raison d’être for this release I couldn’t let it go unsaid, and I’m pretty amazed at how few reviewers elsewhere mention all of this. It’s not as if this is a super deluxe release with all texts given in nine different languages, because it ain’t. Former director of the Concertgebouw and current chairman of the Holland Festival and more Martijn Sanders does also write in the booklet, outlining the reason for choosing this remarkable live performance of La Damnation de Faust, which had been one of the 1999 ‘Carte Blanche’ concert series for Bernard Haitink: “...a magnificent document with two top-level ensembles, four phenomenal vocalists and a conductor of world fame who started his career before the Radio Philharmonic.” This is therefore presented as a kind of Exhibit A. of what Dutch cultural life can and has achieved in recent years. It is also evidence of the lack of consultation and discussion which was engaged in before the decision was taken to discontinue the MCO. If musicians have no voice other than in presenting concrete examples of the success of their productions, then here you have it: Exhibit Berlioz.

So, is this recording worth having? The simple answer is an emphatic yes. Even without a desire to support our beleaguered colleagues, this is a stunningly vivid live recording of what must have been an electrifying evening at the Concertgebouw. French native speakers may turn their noses up at a few touchy corners of pronunciation, but all of the soloists are good and at their best they are brilliant. Thomas Quasthoff is a particularly fine Méphistophélès, and the chorus also seems to adapt its sound to create quite a convincingly French, at times almost nasal sound, and certainly with plenty of passionately expressive vibrato. The recording is on the cooler side, a touch more ‘blue-filter’ in the balance than one might expect from the Concertgebouw acoustic, but this trades off into a sound which has terrific immediacy and a fine sense of openness and refreshing clarity. The orchestra provides a superb sonic texture and more than just a backdrop for the singing, with very fine solos and sectional work throughout Berlioz’s remarkable scoring. Favourite moments such as the Marche hongroise in the first part are done with terrific verve and blazing brass, pushing all the right buttons and carrying us forward on waves of exhilaration.

Everyone seems to rave about Sir Colin Davis’s ‘LSO Live’ recording of this work, but while I agree it is very good and the French diction of the soloists is frequently a few degrees more convincing, I always find it rather hard to live with the stuffy Barbican acoustic and feel the music opens out more and creates a more physical reaction in this live version from Bernard Haitink. Giuseppe Sabbatini is more operatic and melodramatic than Vinson Cole in his more lyrical approach in the role of Faust, and which of these you prefer will be a matter of taste. Thomas Quasthoff is also less inclined towards dark suggestiveness than David Wilson-Johnson as Méphistophélès, and Charlotte Margiono’s soprano is more fruity in the lower octaves than Enkelejda Shkosa, whose vibrato is a touch tighter and more intense – all pretty much cases of swings and roundabouts, but if like me you prefer more expressive melodic lines as well as plenty of drama then Haitink is the man. Sir Colin also creates his own accompanying vocal role from the conductor’s rostrum, which becomes intrusive and irritating after a while. No, I’m very happy to have made the acquaintance of this performance from Bernard Haitink, and prefer its sappy vitality to the rather dry sounding LSO version.

Summing up, I was initially afraid I would have to defend this ‘non profit initiative’ release from hot competition, but in the end it’s been easy to welcome it as a top-level production in its own right, and one which need have no fear in standing alongside any of its rivals in the current catalogue. It doesn’t have texts or informative booklet notes, but that’s not the point. This release makes it easy to support a worthwhile cause by giving you a tremendous listening experience. Don’t allow the Dutch government to sweep an entire set of national and internationally valuable cultural institutions into the cold and dirty North Sea. You know what will happen: if they succeed it will only give other governments bad ideas ...

Dominy Clements
Die-hard music professional in The Netherlands

Easy to recommend on all levels, and for one vital cause.