Schumann Szenen aus Goethes Faust
Among the pleasures of a new recording of a seldom recorded piece – and what a piece, much of it strikingly anticipating mature Wagner – is the new light thrown on sections of the score. And with period instrumentalists in ‘romantic’ repertory, that light shines as brightly on a work’s past as its prophecy, most obviously here in the chords that speak Don Giovanni so brazenly at the start of the spine-chilling Cathedral Scene, and the quiet pulsing figure from the typically prominent woodwinds as Faust breathes his last (his ‘hochsten Augenblick’, ‘sublime moment’) recalling a similarly visionary passage in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony’s finale where the chorus quietly intones ‘Uber Sternen muss er wohnen’. Yet, the distinctive timbres of Herreweghe’s orchestral forces, the way they balance with each other and with the choirs, and the (as recorded) relatively narrow range of dynamics, can just as easily bring more unlikely illuminations, for example, the opening minutes of Part 3’s final ‘Chorus mysticus’ here revealing harmonies almost as extraordinary as anything in Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. As I say, what a piece! Or rather, most of it: there are brief sections of second-rate Schumann in Part 3 (Goethe’s final scene, set later by Mahler), and although he preferred his revised (longer) ending – as recorded here – my feelings are that the material outstays its welcome. Both Britten and Abbado, in their rival sets, opt for the more concise, formal and energetic first ending.
In her Master Musicians book on the composer, JOC writes ‘nothing in Schumann’s output is more dramatic than the actual moment of Faust’s death and the eerie hollowness that follows’ – a moment perhaps understated by Abbado. But not here, with the deep pedal C (a surprisingly full bass for a period band) as solid as the ground in which Faust is about to be laid, incisive period brass for the actual death-pangs, and Mephistopheles eventually noting that ‘die Uhr steht still’, ‘the clock has stopped’ (which it most certainly has) in a black near-whisper that almost freezes the blood, this is edge-of-the-seat experience as intense as any from nineteenth-century opera. I could cite several other instances of vivid theatre resulting from Herreweghe’s keen sense for it, and from the general immediacy of the sound, even an example of good old-fashioned ‘creative’ engineering where Sorge (Worry) has echo added to her voice for her blinding of Faust (entirely legitimate; it is a parting curse). And these, plus the fundamental differences with the Britten and Abbado sets – which include Herreweghe’s choice of a women’s chorus where they use boys – are justification for his set as a supplement to theirs. But not as a top recommendation.
What I miss is their overall consistency. Britten’s set was recorded in Aldeburgh after performances at the 1972 Festival, and the luxuriously cast Abbado set is a compilation of three live Berlin Philharmonie performances on consecutive days in 1994. Herreweghe’s is also live – the booklet information doesn’t make this clear – but sounds relatively hastily captured (Pater Profundus in Part 3 misreading his text: ‘wie strark’ for ‘wie stark’) and certain key passages of the score, such as the elevating moments in ‘Ariel. Sunrise’, where Schumann opens up new vistas, of landscape or feeling or both, don’t convey the necessary uplift. The soloists are partly to blame for this. Kristinn Sigmundsson, as Mephistopheles and the ‘Evil Spirit’ in the Cathedral Scene, is the star of the show, a resonant bass who projects powerfully and knows exactly when and how to menace with relish. But William Dazeley’s Faust, though sensitively, seriously and often beautifully sung, is hardly the deliverer of passion or revelation (or of his lower register) in the Terfel or Fischer-Dieskau mould; and although Camilla Nylund’s Gretchen is touching in her intimate exchanges with Faust in the opening Garden Scene, the octave leaps of her climactic appeal to the Mater Dolorosa (‘Hilf! rette mich’) are unevenly produced, and her constant vibrato in this scene (the voice reminds me of Hildegard Behrens) is surely too much of a good thing. A seemingly uncontrollable vibrato also mars Hans Peter Blochwitz’s Ariel (strained in its higher, louder reaches), who was probably having a bad day.
In contrast to the more natural ‘concert hall’ layout of the Abbado set, close-miking is the tack here (not always flattering to the soloists), with reverberation added for atmosphere and depth, mostly appropriate to the occasion. '