Berlioz La damnation de Faust

Author: 
John Warrack

Berlioz La damnation de Faust

  • (La) Damnation de Faust
  • (La) Damnation de Faust

Sir Colin Davis's Philips recording of La damnation has held the field now for over 15 years since 1974, when it came as something of a revelation to listeners who either knew nothing of the work beyond its famous excerpts, or who under-rated the consistency that can be found in its vision. (The latter included Tovey: I chance to possess his old miniature score, which is peppered with disobliging comments he would probably not have wished to stand by publicly.) For all Berlioz's loving detail and the scrupulous references, this vision owes as much to French romanticism as to Goethe, and in particular, I have come to feel, a great deal to Berlioz's admired friend Alfred de Vigny, with his pessimistic view of the world as a series of failing consolations. Davis emphasizes the successive allures with a sense of colour, of excitement, of hectic commitment that again and again turn sour as the undertow of melancholy repeatedly asserts itself.
For all the skill and attention to detail, Gardiner's performance is less complete, and I have the feeling that he has not been best served by an amalgam of two live performances recorded in the autumn of 1987. Davis's set shows its age in some ways, but there are still details which are better than in the new version—for instance, the running demi-semiquavers in the Plains of Hungary scene or the woodwind in the Easter Hymn, or the four bassoons accompanying Brander's song. Though the Scots, with their purer vowels, generally pronounce French better than the English, there are some slightly strained accents from the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, who sound less vivid than the various choirs who sing for Davis: the peasants for instance, have a deliberately raw quality for Davis which is very effective. Gardiner's handling of them is not helped by a recording that fails to distinguish different levels of sound in too many places: the soldiers' and students' simultaneous chorus is a mess, the delicate choral textures of the chorus of Gnomes and Sylphs go for almost nothing, and it is very hard to hear the solo voice from heaven clearly near the end. In other places, there is rather too strong an emphasis on certain instruments, as with the cornet accompanying Mephistopheles's ''Voici des roses'', Marguerites's cor anglais, gently and quietly played, is, on the other hand, rather reticent in ''D'amour l'ardente flamme''. Gardiner and his choir do very well, however, with the Amen fugue on Brander's song, and they really come into their own in the Pandemonium scene, not an easy section, which is splendidly brought off here.
Of the soloists, Michael Myers is tame beside the high romantic anguish of Nicolai Gedda (Davis), nor can Solti's Kenneth Riegel (Decca) come near this distinguished performance. Solti has a superb Mephistopheles in Jose van Dam, far stronger than Gardiner's Jean-Philippe Lafont and in many ways preferable to Davis's Jules Bastin: however, few can have excelled Bastin's haunting sense of the sadness of evil, of Mephistopheles as a fallen angel. All three Marguerites are fine: Anne Sofie von Otter and Frederica von Stade are both a touch on the operatic side compared with Josephine Veasey (Davis), who sings simply and unaffectedly. It is one of her most beautiful interpretations. Solti conducts, as one would expect, a thrilling performance, but one that is rather too much about thrills and not enough about the score's wonderful variety of mood and pace and colour. He makes the Hungarian March a compulsively exhilarating experience; Davis makes it, finally, a frightening one (with a dreadful emphasis on the so-called 'Hony' theme Berlioz told Cornelius he had got from Brahms's friend Remenyi). This is the consolation of glory turning bitter and empty.
John Eliot Gardiner's performance then, is something of a disappointment the more so as I feel he has so much he could bring to the work in better circumstances. He is one of our finest choral conductors, he is a musician of exceptional intelligence and cultivation, he knows French music from long experience of working in the country, and he has a sharpness and sense of colour that are well-attuned to Berlioz. This is not the performance he could, and I hope will, some time give.'

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