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

Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe's Faust is a work that almost defies categorisation. It’s most certainly not an opera, even though it has its dramatic moments. Nor does it sit easily in the oratorio heritage. In this respect it has something in common with another Faust work: Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust.

Composition of the work occupied Schumann between 1844 and 1853, albeit not continuously. He composed the closing scene first (1844-48). The first and second parts of the work followed between 1849 and 1850 but it was not until 1853 that the overture was composed. It’s clear from Vera Baur’s extensive note that the score – and, indeed, Goethe’s original text – mattered a great deal to Schumann. That much is evident from the quality of the music in this work.

The present recording is an extremely fine one, which I enjoyed very much indeed. One of its many pleasures is the quality of the orchestral contribution. Schumann’s orchestration used to be sniffed at by some commentators and decried as too thick and heavy. Happily, that canard has been laid to rest emphatically, not least thanks to some notable recordings of the symphonies, including, recently, those by Sir Simon Rattle and Robin Ticciati. If anyone still doubts Schumann’s skills as a felicitous orchestrator then this recording ought to convince them. There’s a considerable amount of this score that calls for delicacy and finesse and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, conducted with great understanding by Daniel Harding, plays superbly throughout.

The choral contribution is also very good indeed. The adult choir is excellent throughout. They sing with strength and spirit in the ‘Dies Irae’ passages of the Cathedral Scene and I much admired their role in Part III, especially in the closing Chorus Mysticus. A special word of praise is due to the boy’s choir. Their singing in Part II has a beguiling freshness and innocence to it and the soloists who feature in Part III as the Blessed Boys are assured.

Schumann wrote a large number of solo roles and it’s understandable that, if only for reasons of economy, the soloists should take more than one part. In the heading to the review I’ve listed the principal roles that each sings, though several singers take additional small roles. There isn’t a weak link in the cast though the veteran Kurt Rydl sounds slightly strained at times as Pater Profundus and his vibrato is a bit wide for my taste. Andrew Staples is particularly successful as Ariel, offering light, effortless singing in those solos; his singing gives great pleasure. He copes well, too, with the high tessitura of the Pater Ecstaticus solo.

Alastair Miles is very well cast as Mephistopheles and Böser Geist. In the latter role he sounds suitably menacing and potent during the Cathedral Scene. Later in Part II his timbre is just right for the insinuating, cleverly dominating character of Mephistopheles. This is as good a performance as I’ve heard him give on disc.

I’ve come across Christiane Karg a few times in the past, most notably in a fine Richard Strauss recital disc last year (review). Each time I’ve heard her I’ve been impressed and her performance here is very satisfying. In Scene One she’s a charming foil to Faust as they dally romantically. In Scene Two she conveys the turmoil and vulnerability of the young Gretchen. After Scene Three we have to wait quite a while to hear her again but when she reappears towards the end as Una Poenitentium her radiant singing means it’s worth the wait.

Dominating the performance is Christian Gerhaher. He’s justly celebrated as a Lieder singer and here, working on a bigger canvas, he brings a recitalist’s subtlety and intimacy while at the same time projecting both the music and his characterisations in a more ‘public’ way. He’s very fine as Faust – and it’s clear from the interview with him in the booklet that he’s thought deeply about both the character and the work as a whole. Yet it seems to me that he saves his finest singing of all for the role of Doctor Marianus in Part III. His delivery of ‘Hier ist die Aussicht frei’ is in itself worth the price of the discs. The start of the solo is rapt and in the section from ‘Höchste Herrscherin der Welt’, with its rippling harp accompaniment he offers concentrated beauty of tone and a wonderful sense of line. This marvellous solo contains music that is simple and at the same time sophisticated and Gerhaher’s performance perfectly complements Schumann’s achievement. The great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on the Benjamin Britten recording is a little more overtly intense than Gerhaher and, as usual with that singer, a great deal is made of the words – which isn’t always to everyone’s taste. I wouldn’t dream of saying that one of these fine singers is “better” than the other in this exquisite solo; both offer different and rewarding perspectives but I hugely admire Gerhaher’s performance of it. The rest of his contributions to this recording are just as admirable.

Benjamin Britten’s 1972 studio recording is a magnificent achievement. He had a stellar cast headed by Fischer-Dieskau as a memorable Faust/Doctor Marianus. John Shirley-Quirk excelled as Mephistopheles/Böser Geist and the set offers a welcome chance to hear again the glorious voice of Elizabeth Harwood as Gretchen/Una Poenitentium. Peter Pears was a characterful Ariel. Britten himself conducted superbly but, then, so too does Daniel Harding on this new release. I’m not about to pension off my Britten version but, my goodness, I’m glad to have this new recording to set beside it.

BR Klassik have really pushed out the boat in terms of presenting this set. The discs are housed in a hardback book-style case within which is a very handsome booklet containing texts and documentation in German and English. Besides the very interesting interview with Gerhaher there’s also an excellent essay about the work by Vera Baur – though I hope I’ll be forgiven for saying that Joan Chissell’s note accompanying the Britten set was even better at guiding the listener through the work. However, the new sets score important points for providing a glossary of names and terms that occur in Goethe’s text. That’s an invaluable tool for unfamiliar listeners and I applaud BR Klassik for being so thoughtful.

The other important presentational aspect is the recorded sound and this is very good indeed. The balance between voices and instruments seems to me to be extremely well judged. The choir is accurately placed within the sound-picture and Schumann’s colourful and attractive orchestral writing is clearly heard.

This is an important set containing a first-rate performance of a fine work and scrupulously presented documentation.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Stuart Sillitoe (Recording of the Month) and Michael Cookson



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