Busoni faust PACO188

Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Doktor Faust (1927) [126.12]
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone) – Faust, George Shirley (tenor) – Mephistopheles, Ingrid Bjoner (soprano) – Duchess of Parma, Paul Francke (tenor) – Duke of Parma, Malcolm Smith (bass) – Wagner, Lee Cass (bass) – Master of Ceremonies, 1st Voice, William Metcalf (bass) – Theologist, 3rd Voice, L D Clements, Adib Fazah, Gene Bullard (tenors and basses, Students, Voices)
American Opera Society Chorus and Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein
rec. Carnegie Hall, New York, 1 December 1964
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO188 [71.33 + 54.39]

Busoni’s Doktor Faust must be one of the unluckiest operas in the chequered history of the form. Beginning with the unfortunate fact of its composer’s demise before he could complete the score must be added the consideration that the two missing scenes – the encounter between Faust and Helen, and the doomed hero’s death – were clearly intended to be the lyrical highlights of the work. When, after several attempts to interest other composers such as Schoenberg in the music, Busoni’s widow entrusted the completion of the score to his pupil Philipp Jarnach, the latter supplied the missing material through a combination of various sketches with recycling of motives from the Saraband which Busoni had written before beginning work on the opera, while simultaneously ignoring others of the composer’s sketches. When the opera received its first commercial recording in the 1970s under Ferdinand Leitner, in a 3 LP set from DG linked to German radio performances, broadcasting considerations meant that the music was quite heavily cut; and unfortunately the scissors were applied with some apparent relish to Busoni’s own music while leaving Jarnach’s contributions more or less untouched. For many years this set was the only means by which most listeners were able to hear Busoni’s music, until the appearance of a 3 CD set conducted by Kent Nagano which not only restored the score to its original state but also supplied us with new versions of the missing material by Andrew Beaumont, which paid greater service to Busoni’s remaining sketches than had been the case with the Jarnach edition of the score.

The brief notes with this Pristine remastering of earlier broadcast tapes of the American première of the opera, in a concert performance under Jascha Horenstein, make particular mention of the conductor’s close association with the music of Busoni. This however makes it all the more regrettable that the scissors wielded so enthusiastically in the case of the Leitner recording have been even more obviously in evidence here. Both of Busoni’s extensive introductory orchestral preludes have been trimmed down close to non-existence, and the opening scenes are also abridged. Even worse, the lengthy intermezzo where the soldier (Gretchen’s brother from Goethe, here receiving the only mention of the heroine in Busoni’s treatment of the legend) is killed by forces under the command of Mephistopheles, is omitted in its entirety. Leitner cut much of the extensive organ prelude to this scene where Busoni pays tribute to his beloved Bach, but Horenstein’s acquiescence in the total excision of fully eighteen pages of vocal score is an act of sheer butchery. The only very dubious advantage of this cavalier procedure is that it enables the whole opera to be fitted onto two discs, by comparison with which the complete Erato set extends to a very full three. Which only goes to demonstrate the sheer scale of the truncation. This is hardly a complete recording at all, more in the nature of extended highlights. (By the way, the same can be said of the 1959 Boult broadcast which has also surfaced on CD in recent years; but that does not even pretend to be complete, being described as a “shortened concert version” and squeezed onto a single CD.)

Having said which, the cuts are even more regrettable since the casting provided for Horenstein is in many ways superior to that given to Leitner for his broadcast ten years later. The only substantial female role, the soprano Duchess of Parma, was assigned in the German broadcast to the unlovely Hildegard Hillebrecht, an undisciplined and gusty singer whose contribution to the set was painful to hear and ruined some genuinely lovely music; here Ingrid Bjoner is far superior, managing the high tessitura with grace and ease (and Heather Harper for Boult was even better). In the DG set, too, William Cochran too displayed serious signs of strain in the near-impossible role of Mephistopheles – whose opening line, admittedly from offstage, begins on a high B flat and rises to a top C sustained over three full bars – but the young George Shirley, not generally famed for his high notes, provides the sense of insidious and indeed poised lyrical sweetness that Busoni clearly had in mind rather than the blustering shreds of a heroic tenor voice pushed well beyond its natural comfort zone. In the title role Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is common to both the Leitner and Horenstein sets – he also appears in the Nagano recording speaking the Prologue, a nice tribute to a singer who made the role substantially his own during the 1960s and 1970s. And indeed it is a role that plays exactly to the singer’s strengths, with its intricately argued philosophical ruminations lying well within the Fischer-Dieskau intellectual compass while the violently emotional outbursts fit better with his voice at that period than some of the more lyrical roles where his boisterous engagement could be regarded as excessive. Here in 1964 he is inevitably in fresher voice than he was for Leitner a decade later, although he is clearly placed under less strain by the fact that he is given less to sing (and even less in 1959 with Boult, although it appears he may have actually performed more of the score at the concert than we are given in that live LPO recording). Malcolm Smith is effective as Faust’s assistant Wagner, less ‘woofy’ that some of his rivals elsewhere, but he too suffers from substantive truncation of his role.

None of the other singers, distributed between several roles, are left with much to do; the chorus is well-drilled and enthusiastic, but their extensive contribution at the end of the Prologue is likewise heavily pruned. The unfortunate offstage demonic voices who precede the arrival of Mephistopheles are condemned to almost complete inaudibility by their position with regard to the microphones; Leitner on his broadcast had the advantage of such stellar voices as the young Hans Sotin (in the role here assigned to Lee Cass) but their contribution was ruined by having them placed right on top of the listener in total contravention of Busoni’s explicit instructions. Indeed the Leitner recording suffered from an almost claustrophobically close observation of all the performers in the very worst German broadcast style, and an almost total lack of any natural atmospheric resonance which tended to underplay and flatten out the dynamics of the music. Horenstein is given the advantage here of a genuine hall acoustic – with the voices perhaps recessed almost too far – but can thereby generate overwhelming climaxes, as for example at the end of the opening scene where the crucible erupts in Faust’s laboratory. The dynamic range, in fact, is astonishingly wide, and helps to reinforce the dramatic presentation of the whole in Andrew Rose’s expert remastering, even when the over-dominant percussion and tinny-sounding cymbals occasionally obtrude. The orchestra are clearly energised by Horenstein; although for all their admirably skilful prestidigitation in the many fast passages the violins cannot disguise their essential lack of numbers, which means that lyrical climaxes sometimes feel short-changed (as for example in the passage just before Faust signs his pact with the devil). The tones that they produce in the Sarabande interlude are particularly scrawny and under-manned. Nonetheless the sound, for extended listening, is probably preferable to that on the DG recording with which we had to live for so long; and it is certainly more natural.

Nonetheless as a recording of the complete text of Busoni’s opera, together with a choice of the endings provided by both Jarnach and Beaumont, the Erato set under Nagano is clearly the unchallenged and preferred version for any listener interested in the composer’s masterwork. An alternative, near-complete version on Oehms suffers from some unnecessary minor omissions (and we are denied Beaumont’s realisation of Busoni’s sketches) and the inevitable problems of noise associated with a recording live from the operatic stage. And there I fear the recommendations must come to an end, since the abridgements of all the rival sets are sufficient to seriously distort the view of the music and drama itself. Those looking to hear Fischer-Dieskau in one of his major signature roles and in his freshest voice may well find this Pristine recording of value (although you get more of the music with Leitner), but we can only regret that nobody saw fit to record the great baritone in an absolutely complete version of the score. A video with Thomas Hampson (again using the Jarnach rather than the Beaumont completion) makes additional cuts in Busoni’s own music. We could really do with a recording (a video, if one exists) of the English National Opera production with Thomas Allen and Graham Clark, which also happened to be the world première performance of the Beaumont completion, albeit in English translation. There is no indication on the discs themselves that Pristine supply either text or translation; but from the website one can access a libretto with parallel texts in German and English, although this has been somewhat adapted to show some alterations and includes (and identifies) some passages which are excised in this recording.

Those who love Busoni’s Doktor Faust – and I am certainly one – will want this recording as an example of Fischer-Dieskau in his prime in this role, for Horenstein’s conducting and for the natural sound of the Carnegie Hall acoustic (the audience, enthusiastic in their applause, are amazingly quiet for a New York contingent in mid-winter, with hardly a cough in evidence). But although we must give thanks to Pristine for making the recording available, and in such an excellent transfer, for the complete opera itself we will still need the Nagano set.

Paul Corfield Godfrey