If I see a review in another publication of a CD that I’ve been sent for review I try to avoid reading it in case my judgement becomes influenced. However, occasionally one can’t help reading someone else’s appraisal. In this case I’m glad I did. Indeed, I’m going to take the rather unusual step of referring readers to that other review.
It’s a review of this disc by Robert Matthew-Walker, which appeared in the November issue of International Record Review (page 82). On the back of the jewel case we read that the content of this CD is a “1959 BBC broadcast … of a shortened concert version created by Sir Adrian Boult (my italics) …” In his review, which I suggest should be read in detail, Mr Matthew-Walker makes a very forthright case that this statement is incorrect and, in fact, downright misleading. In brief, he states that he actually possesses a recording, presumably off-air, of this very broadcast which runs for just over two hours, as compared with the eighty minutes running time of this CD. He tells his readers that this CD omits 81 pages of music from the Breitkopf und Härtel vocal score of the opera and that, while Boult made some cuts on the night, he performed most of the music contained in those 81 pages.
Unlike Mr Matthew-Walker I don’t have access to a vocal score so I can’t check what he says but he makes his case in such detail that I have absolutely no reason to doubt what he is saying. That, in turn, means that the description of this recording by the LPO may be rather disingenuous and one feels some explanation is called for. Why did they not simply describe the CD as “excerpts”? I looked in Michael Kennedy’s biography of the conductor (Adrian Boult, 1987), where there’s also mention of this performance. Mr Kennedy states: “The Symphonia, the Poem and the Intermezzo (Chapel in Münster) were omitted.” That statement isn’t sufficiently detailed to count as categorical evidence but there’s a pretty strong implication in Mr Kennedy’s choice of words that the rest of the opera was performed.
Robert Matthew-Walker is indignant that the LPO’s packaging implies that Sir Adrian foreshortened Busoni’s score so radically. I think there’s additional cause for regret. Though it’s not mentioned in the booklet, this wasn’t the first time he’d conducted Doktor Faust. Kennedy refers to an earlier performance, in March 1937, during Boult’s time as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. On that occasion “several scenes were omitted” but we’re not told how extensive those cuts were. Boult’s period at the helm of the then-new BBC Symphony Orchestra saw him perform, often for the first time in the UK, a wide range of recent pieces, which were very daring choices at that time – most famously, Wozzek. By the nature of things, few of these have been preserved and Boult didn’t return to many of them after the Second World War. However, Doktor Faust is obviously an exception so it’s a shame if an incomplete version of Boult’s view of that score is all that is now being offered.
This 1959 concert performance was a pretty enterprising affair because, as Kennedy points out, the opera wasn’t staged in Britain until 1986. Indeed, I wonder if this performance – and Boult’s 1937 traversal – were the only UK performances of anything like the complete work prior to that 1986 staging.
Turning to the recording itself, there’s much to admire. Of prime interest is the portrayal of Faust by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. He’s in superb voice and is a commanding presence whether he’s putting across the vanity of Faust at the start - in Prologue I - or his torment in the final scene. This is a tremendously wide-ranging performance, both vocally and emotionally, and Fischer-Dieskau is a dominating presence – as he should be. There’s also a great deal of subtlety in his singing and the sheer sound he produces is marvellous. His was obviously a riveting portrayal on the night.
The other particularly ear-catching performance is that by Heather Harper. She sings with great distinction, nowhere more so than in her substantial solo in Scene I (track 8). Her tone is lustrous and she delivers some glorious soft high notes. It’s good to be reminded of this exceptionally fine artist, especially in a role which she probably undertook rarely. The other principals also do well. The tenor Mephistopheles is hugely demanding in terms of the tessitura. Richard Lewis is fearless in what we are allowed to hear of his performance and his dialogue with Faust in Prologue II (track 5) crackles with electricity. It’s good also to hear Ian Wallace as a characterful Wagner – what a fine, full voice he had!
The choral singing is pretty good – one suspects the professional Ambrosian Singers were drafted in to stiffen the ranks. The orchestral playing is more than “pretty good”; in fact the LPO projects Busoni’s complex score with fine assurance – one wonders how much rehearsal they had. Passages that particularly caught my attention were the delivery of the busy writing after the first entry of Mephistopheles (track 4 from 3:04) and the doom-laden end of the score. The orchestra comes into its own in the Symphonic Intermezzo – the Sarabande. Here Busoni’s scoring is, by turns, delicate and romantic and the LPO plays the piece very well indeed. One must remember that in all likelihood none of the orchestral players or chorus members would previously have set eyes on the score, with the exception, perhaps that some of the players may have performed the Sarabande as a separate item.
Boult seems to have full command of the score. There’s nothing remotely tentative about the music-making. He would have had the benefit of prior knowledge of the score but that was over twenty years earlier. This performance demonstrates what a versatile conductor he was and how scrupulous was his preparation for any assignment.
The sound is perfectly satisfactory. One must make some allowance for the fact that the recording is over fifty years old but, to be honest, I’ve heard several more recent live recordings on which the sound has been far more constricted. We can hear a significant amount of detail and the climaxes are conveyed well enough. The principals were presumably positioned at the front of the platform – they’re forwardly placed in the acoustic picture. The chorus registers well and there’s good clarity in the orchestral sound. Credit for the quality of the sound on this disc is due to Roger Beardsley and Andrew Lang, who have done the re-mastering and to the original BBC engineers. There is no distracting audience noise that I could detect and, rather surprisingly, no applause at the end
For whatever reason, we appear to have here a truncated representation of what took place in the Royal Festival Hall that November evening in 1959. I wish the LPO had made it more clear in their documentation that this CD contains no more than excepts. As it is, newcomers to the work are not best served, especially as there are no texts or translations. There is a serviceable synopsis by John Amis.
As a souvenir of Fischer-Dieskau in an important role or of Boult in repertoire with which he was far from closely associated this CD has some value but, in all honesty, I have to advise prospective purchasers to approach it with some caution.
Prologue I [10:47]
Prologue II [14:02]
Scene I [17:21]
Symphonic Intermezzo [7:16]
Scene II [5:42]
Final Scene [19:18]