Schumann Scenes from Goethe's Faust
Nikolaus Harnoncourt, recent recipient of Gramophone’s Lifetime Achievement Award, never ceases to surprise with his enthusiasms. Compared to Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, this is perhaps a less unexpected venture: a live recording with the Concertgebouw and a first-rate soloistic line-up of Schumann’s choral masterpiece, Szenen aus Goethes Faust.
For years Schumann had contemplated Faust as the subject of a possible opera, and perhaps if he’d produced such a work it would have gained a more certain place in the repertoire. What has hampered Szenen’s progress is certainly not musical quality, which is brilliantly sustained, the final part arguably one of the composer’s most moving achievements. But in this postmodern world, we’re as suspicious of grand literary cantatas as we are of the oratorios of Mendelssohn and Liszt. A pity, for this particular piece deserves to be up there with the Faust-inspired works of Berlioz and Gounod.
That said, Harnoncourt doesn’t exactly have the field to himself, with fine readings from Abbado and Herreweghe. The latter tends to be lighter-textured than either Abbado or Harnoncourt, and William Dazeley is consistently impressive, though the remainder of the cast is not quite on his level. What Harnoncourt does particularly superbly is steer away from the slightest hint of anything saccharine: the chorus of blessed boys being a case in point. He’s aided by the outstanding Christian Gerhaher, who is moving not only as Faust but in the Dr Marianus music too. Terfel, for Abbado, is also on wonderful vocal form but emotes a little more obviously. Franz-Josef Selig and Alastair Miles are also great assets to the Harnoncourt set, though Christiane Iven is not quite in the same class as Karita Mattila for Abbado.
You’re aware that Harnoncourt’s version is live not only from the occasional noises off, but also (inevitably) the odd moment that would have been retaken in a studio. But he’s never less than compelling, and his vision of this great work is consistently enlightening.