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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
La damnation de Faust (1845-46) [126:08]
Faust - Bryan Hymel (tenor); Marguerite - Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano); Méphistophélès - Christopher Purves (baritone); Brander - Gábor Bretz (bass);
Tiffin Boys’ Choir; Tiffin Girls’ Choir;
London Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, 17 & 19 September, 2017, The Barbican, London. DSD
French text and English translation included
LSO LIVE LSO0809 SACD [56:49 + 69:19]

This recording was made in September, 2017 at two concerts which the LSO mounted as part of its ‘This is Rattle’ celebration of Sir Simon’s arrival as Music Director. My Seen and Heard colleague Colin Clarke attended the first of those concerts (review).

Just a few weeks ago, before these discs arrived with me, a colleague’s review of a recording of the Symphonie fantastique referred to my review of Rattle’s 2008 recording of the work with the Berlin Philharmonic, pointing out that I had described the interpretation as “a near miss”. That review was written in 2009 and I had forgotten it. Intrigued, I looked up the review and found that I had gone on to say this: “However, there’s enough in this performance to suggest that Rattle should continue to explore Berlioz and that he could well become a very fine exponent of the music of this wayward genius.” I’ve no idea how much Berlioz Rattle has programmed in the intervening years but I’m delighted to find that he chose to perform the astonishingly original La damnation de Faust right at the start of his association with the LSO.

How to classify La damnation de Faust? It’s not an opera – though I know some stagings have been done – and to call it a dramatic cantata rather belittles it. It’s probably best not to waste time trying to pigeonhole it but to accept it for what it is: a supremely original and unclassifiable response to the Faust legend. One thing’s for sure: no half measures will do in performing it. Thankfully, there is no question of half measures here. The LSO and its Chorus have history with the work. I’m not sure in how many recordings of the work they have been involved but I do know that they set it down twice with Rattle’s distinguished predecessor-but-one, Sir Colin Davis. He conducted them in his 1973 Philips recording and then again for LSO Live in 2000. The latter recording, which I think is still available separately, has recently been reissued by the label in its set The Berlioz Odyssey which my colleague Paul Corfield Godfrey assessed just recently (review).

The Rattle performance features the American tenor Bryan Hymel in the title role. I found it fascinating to make comparisons between him and Giuseppe Sabbatini, who sings on the Davis set. At first, I thought I might not care for Hymel. In the very first solo he sounds somewhat effortful and that impression was reinforced when I listened to Sabbatini. There’s more edge in Hymel’s voice while Sabbatini sounds much sweeter. Vocally, the Italian sounds comfortable in the role though still able to suggest Faust’s restless unease. I continue to admire Sabbatini but as the Rattle performance unfolded, I realised that Hymel is not to be underestimated. In Part III the ‘Air de Faust’ (‘Merci, doux crépuscule’) is very well done; Hymel’s singing is very nuanced, mixing longing and ardour. In the same solo Sabbatini is very affecting; at the start he’s gentler than Hymel but later on, quite rightly, he is more ardent. Hymel is very good, too, in the duet with Marguerite (Scene XIII), dealing effortlessly with the very high tessitura. He and Karen Cargill deliver an impassioned account of this duet. And Hymel rises magnificently to the challenge of the ‘Invocation à la nature’ where the ring in his voice is thrilling. In this scene Rattle and the LSO bring out superbly the details in the scoring, showing to best advantage the originality of Berlioz’s orchestration – as, needless to say, does Sir Colin Davis in his performance.

I really enjoyed hearing Christopher Purves as Méphistophélès. At his arrival on the scene in Part II he impresses at once as a suave, insinuating presence: Faust beware! I find Purves more characterful than Michele Pertusi, who sings on the Davis set – ‘Tout ce que peut rêver le plus ardent désir’ offers an early example of Purves’ characterisation. When Méphistophélès engages with the inebriated revellers at the end of their tipsy fugue, Purves’ sarcasm is most entertaining – Pertusi isn’t quite so good at that. I was seduced by Purves’ suave tone and excellent line in ‘Voici des roses’ and as the drama unfolds and he gradually reels in the unwitting Faust, Purves increasingly reveals the malevolent side of his character until his triumph is complete.

Karen Cargill is a lustrous Marguerite. Her fairly generous vibrato has an impact on the clarity of her diction. However, the same can definitely be said of the Albanian mezzo. Enkelejda Shkosa who sings for Davis. Not only is her diction no clearer that Cargill’s but she doesn’t seem comfortable in French and there were times when I felt she was striving too hard for expression. I much prefer Karen Cargill. Her account of the ‘Roi de Thulé’ aria is excellent. Even better, arguably, is ‘D’amour l’ardente flamme’. Miss Cargill’s delivery is touching whereas Enkelejda Shkosa seems to me to rather overdo the emotion. On the Rattle set the aria is enhanced immeasurably by the poignantly poetic cor anglais playing of Christine Pendrill. I expect she did the honours too – and to equally memorable effect – for Sir Colin, though I can’t be sure since the orchestra list isn’t provided with the earlier release.

Offhand, I can’t readily think of a work in which the chorus has to cover so many bases. They appear in all sorts of guises but whatever Berlioz requires of them Simon Halsey’s London Symphony Chorus delivers the goods. Mind you, the 2000 vintage of the LSC which sang on the Davis recording – when their chorus Director was Stephen Westrop – does a first-class job too. The Chorus of Drinkers in Auerbach’s Cellar have a really wild party, the gentlemen of the LSC delivering vibrant singing for Rattle. At the other extreme, the chorus delights with the delicacy of their singing in the Chorus of Gnomes and Sylphes. There’s an enchanting lightness from both choir and orchestra in this episode. After the tumult of Pandemonium, Rattle’s team gives a heart-warming account of the concluding Apotheosis of Marguerite. These last few minutes come off very well in the Davis set too. However, I think Rattle scores something of a coup by adding to the voices of the LSC the young singers of the Tiffin choirs. They add a fresh, innocent edge to the choral sound. I see from Colin Clark’s review of the concert that at this point in the performance the children came into the auditorium from the rear and stood in the aisles to sing. Unfortunately, my hi-fi is not set up for surround sound so I listened to the recording in stereo but I should imagine listeners who have surround facilities will get the full effect.

Throughout the performance the LSO plays superbly. Of course, Rattle, with his famed attention to detail, is just the man to bring Berlioz’s orchestration vividly to life – as does the master Berlioz conductor, Sir Colin. In the Rattle version the ‘Ballet des Sylphes’ is gossamer light and the results are magical. Indeed, all the subtle episodes – and there are many in this score – are perfectly realised by this world class orchestra. And when we get to the moments of high drama - such as the Ride to the Abyss and the horror that follows - the power and thrust of the LSO delivers thrilling results. The Pandemonium, after Faust has fallen into the abyss, is overwhelming – the timpani and bass drum pack a real punch.

Simon Rattle conducts marvellously. I may have felt his 2008 Symphonie fantastique was a near miss but he hits the bulls-eye here. Of course, there are points of difference between his interpretation of the score and that of Sir Colin Davis – one would expect that and life would be very dull if there weren’t differences - but both conductors display a terrific feel for this extraordinary score. I was completely convinced by Rattle’s performance at every turn and so electric is the response that he gets from the LSO in particular that you’d think he’d already been working regularly with them for years. This compelling performance is a very fine achievement and makes me wonder what he might accomplish, for example, with Roméo et Juliette.
Some find the acoustic of the Barbican problematic, especially on disc. I’ve found that on occasion but not this time. The engineering is the work of Neil Hutchinson and Jonathan Stokes of Classic Sound and I think they’ve done a pretty impressive job. The sound has clarity, good depth and an excellent dynamic range. I listened to these SACDs using the stereo option. Given the ways in which Berlioz manipulates his forces for dramatic effect – the offstage, retreating brass at the start of Part III, for example – I should think that the performance will sound even better if you can use the surround option. Incidentally, those aforementioned receding trumpets are well conveyed in this recording.

The set is well documented and includes not just the full text and translation – essential for a release such as this – but also a valuable essay and synopsis by the Berlioz expert, David Cairns. So far as I can see it’s the same note that accompanied the Colin Davis set, but no matter; why reinvent the wheel?

As the Berlioz 150th anniversary year unfolds there will undoubtedly be many more recordings of his music. I hope they’ll be as exciting as this thrilling performance of La damnation de Faust.

John Quinn

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