BERLIOZ La damnation de Faust (Rattle)
If a single achievement symbolises the British ‘lead’ in performing Berlioz over the composer’s homeland, it could well be the LSO’s legacy with this score. Here is their fourth official recording, of which one in particular (the first Colin Davis of the early 1970s) must stand at or near the top of anyone’s favoured discography. Simon Rattle made La damnation one of the first pieces he worked on (in September 2017) at the start of his music directorship of the orchestra. Berlioz’s generous orchestration, solo line-up and choruses (adult and junior) both on- and offstage reminds one of what a suitable ‘test’ piece it is for the launch of a conductor/ensemble partnership.
To say it immediately, it is a test that the new line-up passes with flying colours. Of course these are not the players who appeared under Pierre Monteux in 1962, or (one assumes) mostly under Colin Davis in 1973, but the work and its style – especially the virtuosity and panache required – have clearly remained in the orchestra’s collective memory. There is impressive and fluent instrumental work here, nowhere more so than in tricky rhythmic passages for strings and brass.
There is also a natural sense of when the orchestra is on display – in the lead, as it were – and when it is playing the role of accompanist. Berlioz called the score ‘an opera without décor or costumes’ and, as with his Roméo et Juliette, one of its biggest challenges is in keeping the action behind the music, the dramatic line, clear. Rattle, of course, is a strong guide here, although one might (with perhaps unfair memories of the ‘soundtrack’ from two memorable ENO stagings of the piece – David Alden’s conducted by Mark Elder and Terry Gilliam’s by Edward Gardner) hanker for even more militaristic swagger in the famous Rákóczy March and more stress in the Part 4 Ride to the Abyss. But overall it’s a tightly organised and carefully paced achievement from the conductor. The soloists and chorus match his lead well. There’s drama without overdoing it on the platform and, as the live stream – still available on YouTube – confirms, the acting was all in the voices (and faces).
There’s no lack of either angst or love in Bryan Hymel’s emotional and stylish reading of the title-part and a special richness about Karen Cargill’s fantasies as Marguerite. Christopher Purves manages both wit and a specially sleazy nastiness as the victorious Devil and Gábor Bretz is strong and straightforward as Brander. The choirs have worked hard under their directors and are a notch up in both language and expression on their London predecessors.
So definitely recommended. But the competition remains fierce. There’s a special atmosphere of fresh discovery (and a strong cast led by Nicolai Gedda and Jules Bastin) in Davis Mk 1. Both the old Markevitch records with francophone orchestras have terrific punch; the Gardiner, also with a French orchestra, has a big colour range (almost a ‘period’ recording) and Munch’s not always note-perfect version, France via Boston but without surplus German weight, always feels right.