Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Doktor Faust [132:49]
Comedy Overture [7:07]
Berceuse Élégiaque [8:36]
Rondo Arlecchinesco [10:17]
Full details at end of review; text and translations available from website only
IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES IPCD 1017-3 [3 CDs: 78:15 + 72:03 + 55:23]
Nearly 75 minutes of this recording of Doktor Faust were released on a single disc by LPO Live. John Quinn’s review of that disc drew attention to the omissions that this entailed, and pointed out that prospective purchasers should approach it with caution. Those who accordingly waited for a fuller version are now rewarded with this issue of what would seem to be the whole opera as performed in 1959. There are nearly 50 minutes more music. Admittedly there are still large cuts to the music but nothing like the 81 pages of vocal score apparently missing from the earlier issue.
Sir Adrian Boult’s championing of complex and important works with which his name may not be obviously associated is worth more attention. He conducted the British premieres of Wozzeck, Mahler’s Third Symphony and Roy Harris’s Third Symphony as well as an enormous number of British works. He first conducted Doktor Faust in a concert performance in 1937 with Dennis Noble and Parry Jones. The present performance was similarly in concert form and had the advantage of a cast that is comparable in quality with any assembled later. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau had already sung the work in the opera house and was later to record it again, in a less truncated form, for DG. His performance rightly dominates the opera and shows a complete understanding of the complexities of the character. Richard Lewis was at times clearly taxed by his role, but his performance is still worth hearing for his usual clarity of tone and immaculate diction. It is good to be reminded of his commitment to complex modern scores - he sang in the premieres of The Midsummer Marriage and King Priam as well as the British premiere of Moses and Aaron (as it was in English). Heather Harper sings with great beauty of tone as the Duchess of Parma. The many minor roles are filled with variable success but overall this is a very satisfactory cast. The chorus may sound desperate at times, as does less frequently the orchestra, but there is the real excitement of a live performance here in which the music is being allowed to develop its own fascinating logic. It would be idle to suggest that this is a performance on a level with later studio versions but it does have real virtues of its own, and would be a very useful supplement to any of those.
Arlecchino is a kind of commentary on the idea of a comic opera, rather than a comic opera in itself. There are echoes of Richard Strauss, (late) Verdi and Mozart and yet the whole remains entirely individual. It is a delightfully subtle score, short but full of invention. It is perhaps unsurprising that it appears seldom in the opera house, but makes a delightful experience on disc, although for full enjoyment you need to download the libretto and translation. Although the performance heard here starts and ends with the typical BBC announcement of the 1950s taken from a broadcast from Glyndebourne, what is actually heard between them is the EMI studio recording made about a month later. According to Richard Caniell’s very full and interesting notes it was originally intended to issue the broadcast performance but he later felt that to have been inferior to the studio version. I do not know to what extent that may be the case but certainly what we have here is a performance that musically and dramatically could hardly be beaten. Given its age the recording quality is excellent, enabling the complexity of the work to be fully appreciated.
The three orchestral works are amongst the composer’s more frequently played pieces. The Comedy Overture is the epitome of neo-classicism (of Wolf-Ferrari’s or Richard Strauss’s style rather than that of Stravinsky) and is always worth hearing in such a spry performance despite sound that is only just acceptable. The other two items, recorded at a live concert, apparently suffered from very poor sound as originally transmitted. What we hear here is however at the very least adequate to appreciate what were obviously idiomatic and spirited performances. The start and finish of the Rondo Arlecchinesco are replaced here from an earlier performance to remove defects in the 1949 version. This is done imperceptibly and the overall results ensure that the orchestral works are more than mere fillers.
This is an issue which should appeal to all enthusiasts for the composer’s music. I am not sure that it would be a better choice for anyone unfamiliar with the music than more recent, better recorded and less cut versions, but the riches of performance and of performance history found here are of immense value in themselves and make this an important and highly desirable set.
Should appeal to all Busoni enthusiasts.
Doktor Faust [132:49] Dr Faust - Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone); Mephistopheles - Richard Lewis (tenor); Duchess of Parma - Heather Harper (soprano); Duke of Parma - John Cameron (baritone); Wagner and Master of Ceremonies - Ian Wallace (bass); Mary Thomas and Rosemary Phillips (sopranos); Ambrosian Singers; London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult; recorded at a live performance in the Royal Festival Hall, London, on 13 November 1959: text and translation available at website
Arlecchino [55:23] Arlecchino - Kurt Gester (speaker); Ser Matteo - Ian Wallace (bass); Abbate Cospicuo - Geraint Evans (bass); Dr Bombasto - Fritz Ollendorff (bass); Colombina - Elaine Malbin (soprano); Leandro - Murray Dickie (tenor); Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra/John Pritchard; recorded July 1954; text and translation available at website
Comedy Overture [7:07] London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult (conductor); recorded April 1962
Berceuse Élégiaque [8:36]; Rondo Arlecchinesco [10:17] NBC Symphony Orchestra/Arturo Toscanini; recorded 10 December 1949