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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
La Damnation de Faust Op.24
Stuart Burrows (tenor) - Faust; Edith Mathis (soprano) - Marguerite; Donald McIntyre (bass) - Méphistophélès; Thomas Paul (bass) - Brander
Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Boston Boys' Choir
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa
rec. Boston Symphony Hall, Boston, USA, October 1973
SACD/CD Hybrid; 4.0 Surround and 2.0 Stereo
Reviewed in surround and in stereo
PENTATONE PTC5186212 SACD [122.10]

Pentatone have started to license Quadraphonic recordings from the 1970s Deutsche Grammophon catalogue for reissue as SACDs. They have had considerable success for several years with a long list of recordings from the Philips catalogue of the same period, revealing just how good those early surround experiments were. The only problem at the time they were recorded was the medium. The LP was, and still is, a very fine way to issue stereo recordings, but it was never good for matrixed or discrete quadraphony because of tracing and phase issues. Three of the major companies made 4-channel master recordings but only EMI issued a significant number on vinyl. Oddly EMI's back catalogue remains in some vault and, to my knowledge, no one is planning to let us hear the results any time soon. I would like to hope Pentatone is negotiating with whoever now owns this treasury.

This Berlioz issue proves that those early experiments went way beyond merely providing the sound with some acoustic space. Here we have a fully fledged and remarkably successful attempt really to use the four channels to enhance the drama. Just as Decca made so much of the stereo only 'sonicstage' for such as the Solti 'Ring', DG had tried here to give us a 'quadrasonic stage' with effects well beyond simple spaciousness. For 42 years this has remained unpublicised.

When this recording was reviewed in EMG's Monthly Letter in November 1974 they reported grumpily, "There are many good things in this performance, though they are often lost in a cavernous acoustic that would be more suitable for Bruckner than Berlioz." If only they had been able to hear what the engineers had captured on four track tape, for this has to be the best reason to buy a surround system that I have heard for some time. Before detailing some of these effects I must emphasize that I checked, and yes the SACD stereo tracks are absolutely top class making this issue worthwhile for all listeners. Even if in stereo the front to back spatial effects are unavailable, the engineers clearly made all the best decisions in the down mix. The stereo is actually easier to listen to because there are no aural shocks.

In surround the first few words from Faust - sung brilliantly throughout by Stuart Burrows - seemed very distant but he starts to move into focus after a few bars. The chorus in Scenes 2 and 3 come from behind, though more right than left. I began to wonder if the engineers had made use of the famously good acoustic of Boston's Symphony Hall by placing the chorus on the balcony which runs around the sides and back. The Hungarian March has a very spacious sound, almost beyond the front stage, and I must highlight the fantastic brass playing here and elsewhere. The Chorus of Drinkers in Scene 6 is split into groups sounding from both surround channels and the voice of Brander is also behind the listener. The famous Amen Fugue seems to emanate from everywhere, whilst Méphistophélès - Donald McIntyre on superb form - is obviously moving around on the front stage. The Chorus of Gnomes and Sylphs has an everywhere feeling reflecting Berlioz's instructions that they 'hover around'. The chorus of students sounds to be processing around the hall. In case readers think this must be a dreadful mess, I should stress that the orchestra are always firmly where they should be. The only movement is movement clearly implied by Berlioz's libretto. Scenes 10 and 11 utilise subtle placement of voices so as to draw one into the events. Marguerite's entry sounds like an entrance and her song 'The King of Thule' is all the more magical for this spacious preparation. Edith Mathis is not the steadiest of singers but she sings well and often makes a very beautiful sound. Most important, she characterises well and is most affecting. The BSO violas and cellos are superbly delicate here. At the end of Scene 15 when Marguerite looks out over the sleeping town she moves to the rear channels and, with the distant choruses of students and soldiers, we feel as if we too are looking out over the scene. In Scene 18 when Méphistophélès summons the horses so that he and Faust can ride to the rescue of Marguerite - at least that is what Faust believes, but having signed the parchment he is in fact en route to Hell - the engineers briefly manipulate balances so the music of the horses gallops around from the side to the front to meet Méphistophélès and then gallops away into the distance. The Ride to the Abyss is always a show-stopper. Here, with orchestra playing fit to bust and a chorus that seems to whirl around on all sides, the listener is in a sort of vortex, ending with the howl of despair as Faust is taken down into the underworld. It is a daring display of imaginative sound engineering of which someone should be proud.

This would all be to no avail had not Ozawa and his Boston forces been on such great form. This is quite the most exciting Faust I have heard on record, putting even Solti at least a touch in the shade. I wonder if Pentatone plan on issuing Ozawa's superb 1976 DG Roméo et Juliette or whether indeed these experiments in quadraphony were still continuing three years after the present issue.

Dave Billinge


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