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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Scenes from Goethe’s Faust (1844-53)
Christian Gerhaher (baritone) - Faust, Pater Seraphicus, Dr. Marianus
Christiane Karg (soprano) - Gretchen, Busserin, Una Poenitentium
Alastair Miles (bass) - Mephistopheles
Mari Eriksmoen (alto) - Marthe Sorge, Jungerer Engel, Busserin, Magna Peccatrix
Bernarda Fink (mezzo) - Mangel, Jungerer Engel, Busserin, Maria Aegyptiaca, Mater Gloriosa
Andrew Staples (tenor) - Ariel, Pater Ecstaticus, Vollendeterer Engel, Jungerer Engel
Kurt Rydl (bass) - Pater Profundus
Tareq Nazmi (bass) - Vollendeterer Engel, Jungerer Engel
Knabensolisten und Kammerchor der Augsburger Domsingknaben
Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Daniel Harding
rec. live, Herkulessaal der Residenz, Munich, 18-19 January 2013
BR KLASSIK 900122 [72:40 + 43:00]

Schumann was one of a number of composers who were inspired by the writings of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) - a phenomenon in nineteenth century literary circles. For centuries the Faust legend had fired the inspiration of poets, artists and writers alike. Goethe’s most characteristic and famous creation is the epic poem Faust, a seminal work in two parts: part one was published in 1808 and part two appeared after Goethe’s death in 1832.

For some years Schumann had hesitated before setting the Faust text to music and no other work occupied him as long. He had envisaged the setting as an opera but later chose to treat it as an oratorio. In 1844/48 Schumann used as his starting point Faust’s Transfiguration - the final scene of Faust - which is now part three of the score. He added more scenes and in 1849 came part one and the beginning of part two. The last two scenes of part two were completed in 1850 rounding the proceedings off with the overture in 1853. Shortly after the completion of the Faust Scenes Schumann experienced a mental breakdown, attempted suicide and was committed to an asylum.

With Schumann setting the essence of the Faust text rather than the plot, Vera Baur the writer of the accompanying essay is right to point out that each of the three scenes is still powerful in its own right. The first part is concerned mainly with the Gretchen tragedy, the second deals with Faust’s altercation with evil spirits and his endeavours to improve mankind as well as his subsequent death. The visionary third part sets the final scene of Goethe’s poem, with Faust’s transfiguration and redemption.

The Faust Scenes does not fit the mould of an opera, oratorio, choral symphony or cantata and is often overlooked in Schumann’s work-list. There have been only a modest number of recordings. It’s certainly a score on the fringe of the repertoire and just occasionally a concert staging is programmed.

I notice that Daniel Harding, the same conductor on this BR Klassik recording, stood in for Nikolaus Harnoncourt to conduct a series of three concert performances of Schumann’s Faust Scenes at the Berlin Philharmonie in December 2013. This is his first release on this label and for this recording he has gathered an excellent cast of soloists together. Maestro Harding demonstrates that he is extremely comfortable with the structural and emotional demands of Schumann’s work. We start with the Faust Overture which feels somewhat heavy but still communicates drama as it splendidly sets the scene. Excelling in the demanding key roles of Faust, Pater Seraphicus and Dr. Marianus, Christian Gerhaher is in tremendous voice throughout and demonstrates that he is one of the finest baritones around. Clear, rich and expressive he can easily draw down both colour and weight to his singing. With a performance as astonishing as this it is no wonder Gerhaher is in so much demand both by the world’s greatest conductors for concerts and in lieder recitals. Christiane Karg as Gretchen, Busserin and Una Poenitentium, uses her clear and bright, girl-like tone to splendid effect. In the role of Mephistopheles, Alastair Miles rejoices in a deep, expressive bass and with such ease of projection the results are excellent. Poised soprano Mari Eriksmoen in the parts of Marthe, Sorge, Jungerer Engel, Busserin and Magna Peccatrix has admirable diction and plenty of vocal heft. Eriksmoen can slide through her range easily although there is a slight lack of variety of expression in her voice. Andrew Staples as Ariel, Pater Ecstaticus, Vollendeterer Engel and Jungerer Engel is a bright tenor with clear diction who is able to add weight to his voice when needed. Mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink sings Mangel, Jungerer Engel, Busserin, Maria Aegyptiaca and Mater Gloriosa and n fine voice. As usual her warm and expressive, highly secure tone stands out. Commanding singing in the role of Pater Profundus comes from Kurt Rydl who has a deep and mature, resonant bass. His strength of projection is impressive and exhibits a dark menacing tone. Rydl’s distinctive vibrato is noticeable but it does not intrude. Harding’s choral forces provide indispensable contributions and are clearly well prepared by their respective chorus masters. The members of the Knabensolisten und Kammerchor der Augsburger Domsingknaben are in clear voice, fresh and dedicated. It is hard to fault the glorious contribution of the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks who provide such satisfying and varied textures. The Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Daniel Harding is spirited and committed giving a high quality performance. Its weighty sound, underpinned by the basses and cellos, has a remarkable warmth and energy.

The account of the Faust Scenes that I have been most familiar with is played by the Berliner Philharmoniker under Claudio Abbado live in 1994 from the Philharmonie, Berlin on Sony. Abbado’s excellent team of soloists including Bryn Terfel, Karita Mattila, Jan-Hendrik Rootering and Barbara Bonney together with the Tölzer Knabenchor, Schwedischer Rundfunkchor and Eric-Ericson-Kammerchor combine for a very satisfying performance. This new live account by Daniel Harding is also exceptional and can easily stand alongside Abbado and his Berliners.

The reasonably close sound has been well caught although in the climaxes I did feel that the sound very slightly blurs around the edges. This excellent set has an illuminating essay and an interview with Christian Gerhaher together with full text in German with English translation. There is much outstanding music in Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust and I can only greet this recording with confidence and enthusiasm.
Michael Cookson

Previous review: Stuart Sillitoe (Recording of the Month)