Recording of the Month
When it comes to the music of Robert Schumann the dramatic works have always seemed to be the poor relations when compared to the rest of his music. This is mainly due to the writing of Eduard Hanslick, who at best damned the works with faint praise. The so-called "War of the Romantics" did not help: Schumann was seen as part of the conservative side by the followers of the modernists who included Liszt and Wagner. Either way his dramatic output and especially his opera, Genoveva, a work I enjoy, suffered as a consequence. Scenes from Goethe's Faust did not fare much better, which is a real shame as I have always regarded it as one of his greatest pieces, and not just of his late period, the music of which Hanslick all but dismisses. A convincing argument for the Scenes as a major work is made in the excellent accompanying book.
One of the perceived problems is that it is difficult to describe. It is not an opera but it's hardly an oratorio either. Perhaps a new genre needs to be developed to describe it. Until then perhaps we can call it an opera-oratorio, a description that highlights the best that the work has to offer in both worlds.
Scenes from Goethe's Faust had a prolonged gestation period of some nine years (1844-1853), with the third section having originally been conceived as a standalone work. The first two sections - Schumann was the first composer to set part two of Goethe's text to music - were added later. This led to the criticism that it was unbalanced with the best music being found in the final section, while the rest, which was composed during the period of Schumann's final illness said to lack the spark of inspiration. This is far from the truth. The work has to be seen as a whole or the scenes do not work together. These sections are used to highlight specific aspects of the 'Faust' myth and not the story as a whole.
If the third part could be said to be the most inspired, this is due to Goethe's text. The second part is the most dramatic and lends itself to a more dramatic interpretation through music. The result is a work which deserves more recognition. I would love to hear it performed live but whilst I can't see that happening anytime soon, this is the second new recording to have appeared in the last few years; Wit's Naxos version is the other. Perhaps people are coming to recognise this for what it is: one of Schumann's most important pieces as well as a seminal work in Romantic musical literature.
When it comes to performances the classic recording by Benjamin Britten has always been seen as the one to beat, although I must say that I have always had a soft spot for Abbado's star-studded live Sony recording from Berlin in 1994. I have always enjoyed Abbado's Schumann recordings. Is it any coincidence therefore that Daniel Harding, who became the assistant to Abbado in Berlin the following year, should choose to perform and ultimately record the work as well. This is an excellent performance, a true case of the apprentice learning well from the master. Christian Gerhaher is every bit as convincing as Bryn Terfel in the title role, while Christiane Karg, a soprano to watch, brings out a little more vulnerability to the role of Gretchen than Karita Mattila. That said there is very little to choose between the two, with all performers, soloists, chorus and orchestra, being on top form. Where the present recording wins hands down is on recording quality. There have obviously been a great many improvements in miking live performances over the last nineteen years, as this new recorded sound is a great deal brighter and more natural than that enjoyed by Abbado. This helps to bring out every nuance of the music and gives the listener new insights, especially when it comes to orchestration.
The booklet essay is excellent. It places the work in its true place of prominence. Added to this we find an interview with Christian Gerhaher in which he discusses the piece and a kind of glossary in which the characters are explained. This is all packaged in an attractive hardback book format.
– Stuart Sillitoe, MusicWeb International