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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
La damnation de Faust (1845-46)
Faust – Bryan Hymel; Marguerite – Karen Cargill; Méphistophélès – Christopher Purves; Brander – Gábor Bretz
Tiffin Boys’ Choir, Tiffin Girls’ Choir, Tiffin Children’s Chorus, London Symphony Chorus, Guildhall School Singers
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, 17 & 19 September, 2017, the Barbican, London.
Libretto: French, with English translation
LSO LIVE LSO0809 SACD [56:49 + 69:19]

In the first half of the 20th century a common view of Berlioz was that his ideas were grander than his ability to carry them out. But opinion has changed: though he still has his detractors (who doesn’t?), he is largely regarded as a composer whose many large scores are rich in their artistic yield. True, many are grand in design and intention and may not always hit every target in their ambitious aim, but they are nonetheless endowed with profundity and inspiration of great breadth. The Damnation of Faust is the perfect work to illustrate the point about Berlioz’s broad artistic vision and whatever controversy remains about it.

Berlioz called the work a "légende dramatique", hoping to place it in a category of its own. But it actually straddles two forms: opera and cantata. Usually it is performed in the concert hall as a cantata but has been staged as an opera. So it defies any precise classification, but that fuzzy status doesn’t detract from its artistic worth as some might assume: rather than confusing two worlds, it unites them. It features music of great depth and beauty that fits in perfectly with the story’s happenings and characters’ emotions. The libretto is based on the familiar story about Faust by Goethe as translated by Gérard de Nerval, and was fashioned by the composer with a few portions of text by Almire Gandonnière.

Musically there are many challenges for the performers. Berlioz gave each of the three main roles quite a broad tessitura, making demands upon the singers that are quite daunting, to put it mildly. The choruses are called upon to adapt to many different styles, singing celebratory or sombre or heavenly or delicate music in such disparate numbers as Chorus of Drinkers, Easter Hymn, and Chorus of Gnomes and Sylphs. Yet the choral writing is always assured and its demands are not of the fiendishly difficult variety associated with, for example, Beethoven’s problematic Missa Solemnis. The orchestra is presented with a taxing role as well, playing just as wide a variety of styles and in Berlioz’s typically imaginative orchestration. Their more famous numbers include the Hungarian March (whose theme was also used in Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 15, Rákóczi Marche), Dance of the Sylphs and the Will-o’-the Wisps Minuet. Obviously, we can’t overlook the challenge confronting the conductor: he must oversee all these forces and fashion an interpretation that overlooks no aspect of this colorful and deeply profound score. Much planning, talent and effort must go into a successful performance of the work, then, and when all the elements come together properly, it’s a highly rewarding experience for listeners who then can realize, if they hadn’t already, how masterful the work is.

Everything does, in fact, come together rather effectively in this performance led by Sir Simon Rattle on the orchestra’s in-house label, LSO Live. Among the singers, perhaps the most impressive is Christopher Purves who sings Méphistophélès. Dramatically he is totally convincing, coming across as deceitful, sly and utterly evil, yet also pleasantly beguiling and enticing. Purves has a rich, attractive voice too, and might just be the ideal Méphistophélès. From his somewhat understated but subtle first entry in Part II, Scene V with O pure émotion, he captures your attention. In the bigger numbers like Voici des roses (Part II, Scene VII), Purves shows off both his resplendent, creamy tone and his great dramatic skills, becoming that evil creature but with such charm and cunning.

Tenor Bryan Hymel is impressive as Faust, though in his first numbers in Scenes I and II he sounds a little strained or tentative, perhaps easing a bit too cautiously into the live performance setting. He rather quickly gets better: even in the latter half of Scene II and the opening scene in Part II (‘Sans regrets j'ai quitté les riantes campagnes’) he is gaining a more secure dramatic sense and more confidence, the voice sounding stronger and more assured. Later, his ‘Merci, doux crépuscule’, from Part III, Scene IX, is impassioned and beautifully sung. Some of his strongest moments are in the latter two parts: one might wryly observe that, the closer his Faust’s soul gets to the devil, the more inspired his art becomes.

Karen Cargill has a tight, trill-like vibrato that you notice throughout her range, but it gives her a rather distinct sound. You may like it or you may not. It works for her most of the time - or at least doesn’t sabotage her singing - but in a few instances it is a slight distraction. She is a subtle artist who portrays Marguerite here with great dramatic skill. Her ‘Autrefois un roi de Thule’ (Part III, Scene IX), is nicely, very elegantly sung, and she receives perfectly lovely accompaniment from the orchestra here. In the opening of Part IV (Scene XV) she delivers a knock-out account of ‘D’amour l’ardente flamme’. Overall, she is fine in the role then, but is perhaps a little understated at times in her approach. Gábor Bretz makes a splendid Brander to round out the quite successful effort by the cast.

The various choruses, five in all, sing marvelously throughout the performance, meeting all the considerable challenges in the score. Not surprisingly, the London Symphony Orchestra plays brilliantly as well, whether in solo moments or in accompaniments. Simon Rattle must be given a good portion of the credit of course, as he shapes the score with mostly moderate tempos and finds all sorts of nuance in his phrasing. Meaningful detail abounds and there is never a pedestrian moment in the performance. The sound reproduction is vivid and well balanced. The album booklet contains the libretto in French with English translation. Also included are the names of all singers in the five choruses and members of the orchestra!

Happily, what might make the decision to purchase this SACD somewhat easier for the reader is that the LSO organization has uploaded a performance of it on YouTube! Well, more or less: it’s the performance from September 17, 2017, while this LSO Live disc contains a conflation derived from that day’s effort and the one from two days later. Thus, presumably it would have the better moments from both performances.

Of course, there is significant competition on record: Sir Colin Davis recorded the work twice with the LSO, 1973 on Phillips and 2000 on LSO Live. I haven’t heard the later version, though the early one is very fine and features an excellent Marguerite in Josephine Veasey. There is also an interesting if slightly odd account in English by Sir Malcolm Sargent on Cameo, from 1954. In a way, it is a little harder than usual to make comparisons in this work, perhaps because its somewhat unwieldy and colorful expressive manner allows for so many valid vantage points for the interpreter and performers. My judgment is that alongside the competing accounts mentioned here, this new effort by Rattle and company compares very favorably at the very least, and at this point is my preferred version of this great piece. It’s a fine effort all round then and won’t let the listener down.

Robert Cummings
Previous review: John Quinn


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