Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Daniel Harding and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus together with a strong line-up of soloists give a tremendous performance of Schumann’s much underrated Scenes from Goethe’s Faust

Much of Robert Schumann’s (1810-1856) later output has suffered from neglect due to a misguided view that his mental health had affected his compositional abilities. His Szenen aus Goethes Faust (Scenes from Goethe’s Faust) for vocal soloists, chorus and orchestra, suffered the additional problem of failing to fall into any set genre such as opera, oratorio, cantata or choral symphony. Yet, given the right performance, this is a tremendous work, full of drama and beauty.

BR Klassik www.naxos.com/labels/brklassik-cd.htm have just released a fine new recording featuring the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus www.br.de/radio/br-klassik/symphonieorchester/orchester/index.html  conducted by Daniel Harding www.danielharding.com/profile.html  with a strong cast of soloists including Christian Gerhaher  (baritone) www.gerhaher.de/index.php , Christiane Karg (soprano)  www.christianekarg.com/index.php  and Alastair Miles (bass)  www.alastairmiles.com .
 
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In three parts, Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust deals with the struggle between good and evil as well as enlightenment and peace. There is a fine, dramatic opening Overture which Daniel Harding and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra shape well, with taut playing.

Part One opens with No.1 Scene in Garden. There is a light and dancing orchestral theme as Faust meets Gretchen in the garden and sings, ‘Du kanntest mich, o kleiner Engel, wieder’ (‘You recognised me then, my little angel’). Baritone, Christian Gerhaher and soprano, Christiane Karg in these two roles are extremely fine with Gerhaher’s baritone voice full and strong, bringing a sense of the older Faust and Karg a young innocent Gretchen. They blend extremely well. Bass Alastair Miles, as Mephistopheles, makes his brief and deeply resonant appearance in this scene.

No.2 Gretchen before the image of the Mater Dolorosa brings Christiane Karg’s beautifully musical voice in this particularly lovely section, so beautifully controlled and expressive as she sings ‘Ach neige, du Schmerzensreiche…Hilf! Rette mich von Schmach und Tod!’ (‘Ah cast down, thou rich in sorrows…Help! Save me from shame and death!’)

No.3 Scene in the Cathedral has a fine dramatic orchestral opening before the Evil Spirit of enters brings the bass voice of Alastair Miles, extremely fine, full of threat as he sings  ‘Wie anders, Gretchen, war dir’s’ (‘How different you were, Gretchen’).  Christiane Karg brings a sense of fear and distress before the choir and orchestra intone the ‘Dies irae’ (‘Day of Wrath’) in this impressive section.

Part Two opens with No. 4 Ariel. Sunrise where there is gentle swaying orchestral theme where Faust is stretched out on a flowery lawn, trying to sleep, as a ring of spirits hover over him. Tenor, Andrew Staples as Ariel sings ‘Die ihr dies Haupt umschwebt im luft’gen Kreise’  (‘You who surround this head in airy circle’) He has a clear, light textured voice, nicely projecting the character of Ariel. The Choir of des Bayerischen Rundfunks show a lovely, controlled, softer touch in ‘Wenn sich lau die Lüfte füllen’ (When cool are the airs’).

The choir gain a lovely forward sprung rhythmic melody in ‘Thäler grünen, Hügel schwellen’ (‘The valleys are green, the hills increase’) with some very fine choral and orchestral playing. Ariel sounds a warning to the spirits ‘Horchet! Horcht! Dem Sturm der Horen!’ (‘Hark! Hark to the storm of hours), concluding with a gentle ‘Trifft es euch, so seid ihr taub’ (The sound may turn you deaf’). There are some beautifully orchestrated passages and lovely little woodwind phrases before Faust sings ‘Des Lebens Pulse schlagen frisch lebendig’ (‘The pulse of life beats living and afresh’) Christian Gerhaher really is a very fine baritone. When the horns sound at ‘Der Berge Gipfelriesen’ (‘The mighty mountain peaks’) it is pure Schumann at his best, so distinctive, another fine section full of magnificent writing.

With ‘So ist es also, wenn ein sehnend Hoffen’ (‘So is it too, when yearning hope’), Gerhaher portrays Faust as firm, strong and confident with, towards the end, some beautifully controlled passages where he sings ‘Am farbigen Abglanz haben wir das Leben’ (‘In coloured reflection we have our life’).

No.5 Midnight brings scampering strings over a wind theme before the four grey old women enter, Want, Bernarda Fink (mezzo soprano); Guilt, Sabine Staudinger (alto); Care, Mari Eriksmoen (soprano) and Need, Barbara Fleckenstein (soprano). As they introduce themselves there is a terrific fleeting orchestral accompaniment with these singers providing a fine texture and summoning up a real atmosphere.

After their appearance Faust ruminates on the fact that four came and he only saw three leave singing ‘Vier sah ich kommen, drei nur gehn’ (‘Four I saw coming, only three go’) bemoaning with ‘Konnt’ ich Magie von meinem Pfad entfernen’ (‘Could I rid my path of magic’). But it is Care that answers Faust’s ‘Ist jemand hier?’ (‘Is there anyone there?’) The fresh voiced soprano, Mari Eriksmoen replies, ‘Würde mich kein Ohr vernehmen’ (‘No ear would hear me’) – ‘Hast du die Sorge nie gekannt?’ (‘Have you never known Care?’). Faust replies, ‘Ich bin nur durch die Welt gerannt!’ (‘I have only rushed through the world’.) leading to Care’s response, ‘Erfahre sie, wie ich geschwind Mich mit Verwünschung von dir wende’ (‘Learn, then, how I swiftly part from you with a curse’).

Faust is left blind and, in a very fine section sings ‘Die Nacht scheint tiefer’’ (‘The night seems deeper’) but with ever growing determination and confidence of voice ‘Was ich gedacht, ich eil’ (‘What I intended, I hasten to fulfil’) with a grand orchestral march end.

In No.6 Faust’s Death Alastair Miles as Mephistopheles sings a buoyant ‘ Herbei, herbei’ (‘Come on, come on’) calling on the Lemures (spirits of the restless dead) to undertake their work and who respond with a suitably demonic touch. Faust sings ‘Wie das Geklirr der Spaten mich ergötzt!’ (‘How the noise of spades delights me.’) whilst Alastair Miles provides some fine characterful singing in ‘Man spricht, wie man mir Nachricht gab, Von keinem Graben, doch von Grab’ (They speak, according to the report they gave me, Of no digging but of the grave.’) Faust finally sings ‘Es kann die Spur von meinen Erdentagen, Nicht in Äonen untergehn’ (‘The trace of my earthly days, cannot perish in aeons’) with such fine orchestral accompaniment so beautifully sensitive.

Mephistopheles sings of ‘Die Zeit wird Herr’ (‘Time has become the master’) as the choir and Mephistopheles lead to the subdued end with some exquisite orchestral playing.

Part Three No.1 concerns Faust’s Transfiguration where the orchestra rises beautifully for the scene  where there are mountain gorges, forests, cliffs with anchorites scattered up the mountain side before the chorus enter in the lovely ‘Waldung, sie schwankt heran’ (Forest that sways here’). Tenor, Andrew Staples as Pater Ecstaticus joins for No.2 ‘Ewiger Wonnebrand’ (‘Eternal burning brand’) with a fine cello motif adding passion to the music.

Kurt Rydl brings his deep bass voice as Pater Profundus in No.3 as he sings, ‘Wie Felsenabgrund mir zu Füßen’ (‘As the rocky chasm at my feet.’) before baritone, Christian Gerhaher as Pater Seraphicus sings, ‘Welch ein Morgenwölkchen schwebet’ (‘What a morning cloud floats’) followed by a very fine Chorus of Blessed Boys who later join Gerhaher in a very fine section.

No.4 brings the full chorus of angels as they thunder out ‘Gerettet ist das edle Glied’ (‘Saved is the noble limb’) with fine orchestral support. The younger angel brings the very fine, youthful voice of Mari Eriksmoen later joined by mezzo soprano, Bernarda Fink; tenor, Andrew Staples and bass, Tareq Nazmi. A repeat of ‘Gerettet ist das edle Glied’ (‘Saved is the noble limb’) brings full blooded choral singing with a dynamic orchestra and some rather Mendelssohnian counterpoint.

Doctor Marianus brings back the very fine voice of Christian Gerhaher in No.5 ‘Hier ist die Aussicht frei, Der Geist erhoben’ (‘Here the view is free, The spirit lifted up.’) wonderfully done with small string ensemble in this magical moment with beautifully nuanced singing and exquisite orchestral accompaniment.   

The chorus joins for No.6 ‘Dir, der Unberührbaren’ (‘To you the immaculate’) as does Christian Gerhaher and, later, bass, Kurt Rydl. Alto, Sabine Staudinger brings a lovely Mulier Samaritana as shwe sings, ‘Bei dem Bronn, zu dem schon weiland Abram ließ die Herde führen’ (By the well to which once Abraham led the herds’). The Gretchin of Christiane Karg returns for ‘Dein Antlitz meinem Glück, Der früh Geliebte, Nicht mehr Getrübte, Er kommt zurück’ (‘Your face on my happiness, The one I early loved, no more troubled, comes back’). Dr Marianus kneels and prays ‘Blicket auf zum Retterblick’ (‘Look up to the redeeming Saviour’) full of power, sensitivity and pleading leading wonderfully into No.7, the Chorus Mysticus  ‘Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis’ (‘All that passes away is only a likeness.’) that slowly rises, with some exquisitely beautiful singing, some lovely harmonies – surely as fine a choral moment as anywhere – before picking up rhythmically and leading to the lovely quiet coda.

A contemporary wrote after the first performance of Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, in Cologne on 14th January 1862, ‘Schumann’s muse has today given us a better understanding of Goethe’s poem.’ And surely much more as well.

This is a tremendous performance of a much underrated work that is full of dramatic and beautiful moments. There is a nicely produced book style case with CD’s inserted at either end. The recording is first class and there are excellent booklet notes with full German texts and English translations.

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