Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.
Scenes from Goethe’s Faust
Nikolaus Harnoncourt, cond; Mojca Erdmann (sop); Anitra Jellema (sop); Christiane Iven (mez); Birgit Remmert (alt); Elisabeth von Magnus (alt); Anjolet Rotteveel (alt); Werner Güra (ten); Kevin Doss (ten); Christian Gerhaher (bar); Franz-Josef Selig (bs); Alastair Miles (bs); Netherlands RCh & Children’s Ch; Royal Concertgebouw O
RCO LIVE 9001 (2 Hybrid multichannel SACDs: 118:30
Text and Translation) Live: Amsterdam 4/18/2008
Though there are many who believe that this work is one of Schumann’s greatest, I have always been somewhat ambivalent about it. It is true that the piece grows on you the more you listen to it, but is that not also true to some degree about virtually every piece of music? This is not the Schumann we normally expect in his choral works; a certain depth of probing understanding of Goethe’s sacred text underlies this music, as if the composer were being extra careful not to commit sacrilege against the holy shrine. Goethe himself, of course, was never entirely thrilled with the idea of any of his poetry being set to music, and considered that only the Mozart of
met his ideal, if indeed
was to be given the treatment.
But it hardly seems reasonable that, of all people, Schumann would have been able to resist putting his own stamp on a work of art that so many held to be the pinnacle of Romantic achievement in literature, though the work also had a plethora of critics who thought it inconclusive, unbalanced, and indecisive—criticisms that are still present today. It is much easier to paint a simple musical portrait of this piece without tying oneself down to the actual texts, but Schumann would have none of it. However, even he recognized that its emotive expanse would be far greater than what he would be able to accomplish musically, and early on he rejected an idea to make an opera of it. So oratorio it would be, but even here, much of the visual element emphatically present in Goethe’s highly descriptive work is missing. Pick and choose became the order of the day, and Schumann set about excising different passages, completing the piece in just under nine years. Part II of
had been published only in 1832, and its difficulties had been spotted almost immediately (even today, parts I and II are often read and taught separately in some college courses), though Schumann came up with as workable a scenario as one could expect.
Gone are any scenes where Goethe’s idealized vision of absolute beauty is present, like the chapters with Helen of Troy; indeed, the great central portion of the book is missing from Schumann’s “scenes.” His treatment of Gretchen and of Faust’s destroying her is quite vivid, and Faust’s death is also a sort of macabre ceremony that nonetheless contains music of great substance. Schumann, like Mahler later on, is concerned with the idea of redemption for Faust, even though we are left in some doubt as to whether it was actually achieved, and the composer goes to great length in explaining Faust’s trying to atone for what he did. Even Mephistopheles is given music that, while wonderful in many places, shortchanges the supercharged imagery that Goethe conjured up for him, in the tradition of “the devil always gets the best parts.”
The public has not really taken to this work; maybe that is because there has never been a recording that grabs it, or maybe because the music itself is too literal and brainy to let loose the Schumannesque passion that we all like, though from Faust’s death through the wonderful part III Schumann picks it up greatly and is more himself in these passages. Actually, Benjamin Britten recorded a wonderful production now available on arkivmusic.com, well worth hearing, with sound that still holds up. My favorite to this point has been the Abbado on Sony with the Berlin PO, Bryn Terfel making a challenging Faust with Karita Mattila portraying a delightfully injured and lovelorn Gretchen. The rest of the cast is as star-studded as you might wish, including Barbara Bonney and Susan Graham. The 1997 sound is good for the time, but it cannot top the spacious and every-inch-used surround sound of this new Harnoncourt with the RCO. Harnoncourt is rapidly becoming a Schumann interpreter of the first rank, and he doesn’t hesitate to let go when needed, which in this work is almost all the time, as any other interpretative decisions may lull one off in critical spots. Christian Gerhaher almost tops Terfel in his terrific icon of Faust, while Christiane Iven does indeed match Mattila’s performance for Abbado. I like both of these performances and, in fact, they are very similar in style and scope, though the Sony, as I said, cannot match the sound of this new one; hearing it, I am brought to an awareness of how important the sound is in this work. I can’t say for sure if this means I will retire the Abbado—I don’t think I need multiple recordings of this piece—but more time is needed to make such critical decisions.
Meanwhile, if you need this work—and chances are you do, as it is very important—Harnoncourt has given us the best recorded and performed yet.
FANFARE: Steven E. Ritter
Works on This Recording
Scenes from Goethe's Faust by Robert Schumann
Werner Güra (Tenor),
Mojca Erdmann (Soprano),
Kevin Doss (Tenor),
Anitra Jellema (Soprano),
Christian Gerhaher (Baritone),
Christiane Iven (Mezzo Soprano),
Alastair Miles (Bass),
Franz-Joseph Selig (Bass)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Written: 1844-1853; Germany
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