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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
La damnation de Faust (1845-46)
Faust – Richard Verreau (tenor); Marguerite – Consuela Rubio (mezzo-soprano); Méphistophélès – Michel Roux (baritone); Brander – Pierre Mollet (baritone);
Chœurs Elisabeth Brasseur; Chœur Enfants RTF;
Orchestre Lamoureux, Paris/ Igor Markevitch
rec. May 1959, Salle de la Mutualité, Paris. ADD
French text, English & German translations included

As we mark the 150th anniversary of the death of Hector Berlioz, DG has decided not only to reissue this sixty-year-old recording but also to give it a new lease of life. This Limited-Edition pack includes a pair of remastered CDs and in addition DG have paid the recording the compliment of making it available in a BD-A option.

Igor Markevitch (1912-1983) was a celebrated conductor but, seemingly by choice, he didn’t hold many permanent conducting posts during his career. Perhaps his most significant permanent post was as Principal Conductor of the Concerts Lamoureux from 1956 to 1961. This present recording, made in Paris, was set down partway through his tenure. DG assembled an interesting cast for the project. Faust was sung by the French-Canadian lyric tenor, Richard Verreau (1926-2005). His nemesis, Méphistophélès was the French baritone, Michel Roux (1924-98). In the smaller role of Brander DG cast the Swiss baritone, Pierre Mollet (1920-2007), who took Canadian citizenship in the 1970s. Mollet took the role of Pelléas on Ansermet’s 1952 recording of Debussy’s opera: I see he’s listed there as a tenor (review). Readers of Ralph Moore’s survey of recordings of Pelléas et Mélisande will know that both Roux and Mollet, the former especially, were involved in recordings of the opera during their careers. Roux can be found on Pierre Monteux’s live 1962 recording of La damnation, again as Méphistophélès (BBC Legends BBCL 4006-7). The only non-Francophone soloist was the Marguerite; the role was taken by the Spanish singer, Consuela Rubio (1927-81), who I’ve seen described variously as a soprano or a mezzo; on this evidence she was surely a mezzo.

Judged by the crude measure of the clock, Markevitch’s is one of the shorter accounts on disc much the same as George Prêtre’s 1969 EMI recording (review). At the other end of the spectrum is the Malcolm Sargent live recording from 1953. I’ve not heard that, but I see it runs for 151 minutes, which seems very elongated (review). Several noteworthy interpretations play for around two hours, including both of the distinguished recordings by Sir Colin Davis: his 1973 Philips recording clocks in at 130 minutes and his LSO Live recording, made in 2000, takes a near-identical 131 minutes (review). Sir Simon Rattle’s recent account for the same label plays for 128 minutes (review) and the Monteux live performance, referenced above, lasts 127 minutes. Charles Munch’s 1954 Boston recording for RCA occupies 122 minutes (review). Markevitch makes a handful of small cuts but the main reason behind his relatively short overall timing is the general urgency of his interpretation. That’s not to say that he rushes the music unduly but, on the other hand, he takes the drama by the scruff of the neck and he doesn’t risk sentimentality by lingering over some of the more romantic passages.

First, however, let’s consider the principals. The soloists are quite closely recorded, as was often the way in those days. Richard Verreau makes a fine impression as Faust. Right from the start of his opening solo I took to his clear, plangent and very French sound. In particular I admired his ringing top register. In the duet with Marguerite in Part III (‘Grands dieux! que vois-je?’) Verreau rises easily to the top C sharp. Shortly thereafter, the Bärenreiter vocal score has another top C sharp in the tenor part but Verreau takes a lower line. Since the note caused him no problem first time round, I strongly suspect that he was using an old edition of the score which doesn’t have precisely the same notation as in the 2004 urtext. Later, in Part IV, Verreau gives a riveting account of the ‘Invocation à la Nature’. He projects the music strongly and his voices is ringing and impassioned. Markevitch’s orchestra supports him powerfully, though I must say that Simon Rattle’s more measured approach emphasises better the music’s brooding intensity. Bryan Hymel sings the Invocation very well for Rattle but, for me, Verreau has a decided vocal edge here. as a general observation, in addition to singing extremely well, I believe that he portrays the character of Faust very credibly. Indeed, having listened a few times to this performance I think Verreau is wholly convincing in all aspects of the role: he’s one of the best Fausts – if not the best – that I can recall hearing on disc. Hs rendition of ‘Merci, doux crépuscule!’ is a fine bit of singing by any standards and he’s an ardent partner for Marguerite in the big duet. I should add that his words are crystal clear in their enunciation.

That latter point regarding diction is true also of Michel Roux, as Faust’s nemesis, but in terms of role assumption I don’t think he’s in quite the same league as Verreau. He sings well but I don’t find that he characterises the music – and the role – sufficiently. I want to hear a Méphistophélès who is cunning, sarcastic and a real schemer. Roux doesn’t really suggest that to me. At his first appearance (‘Ô pure émotion!’) I don’t feel that he’s sufficiently ironic, sinister and insinuating beneath the skin. I went back to his 1962 performance with Monteux and there he seems to me to characterise the same passage more effectively. Perhaps he was helped by Monteux’s slightly steadier tempo? Christopher Purves for Rattle, is preferable to Roux, I think, not only here but in general. His enunciation of ‘Ô pure émotion!’ makes me want to shout “Boo! Hiss!” while Roux sounds too urbane. Roux offers silky singing in ‘Voici des roses’ but I think he was rather more poised and suave when he sang this solo in the Monteux performance. I like a lot of what he does for Markevitch but, for me, the bottom line is that he doesn’t come across as a true villain. At the moment of his triumph, as Faust hurtles to his doom, Roux doesn’t make the hairs on your neck stand up as he confirms that Faust signed freely what was, in essence, his death warrant. The sneering triumph displayed here by Christopher Purves is much more appropriate.

I have mixed feelings about Consuela Rubio. The sound of her voice is rich and pleasing and she has no trouble with the top notes. On the other hand, her diction isn’t as clear as that of Verreau and Roux. I like very much her simple and unaffected delivery of the ballad of Le Roi de Thulé. She’s also an excellent foil to Verreau in the Part III duet. I’m less sure about her singing of ‘D’amour l’ardente flamme’ where it seems to me that the ardour in her performance comes too soon and is a bit too much. She definitely conveys Marguerite’s passion but shouldn’t there be also more than a suggestion of vulnerability? The great Régine Crespin is simply wonderful here for Monteux, caressing the music. Karen Cargill is also very good for Rattle; her singing is full of feeling. Rattle’s tempo is more expansive than Markevitch’s and I like Rattle’s approach to this episode very much. One reason why Rubio’s performance sounds so full-on may be the fact that she is recorded more closely than either Crespin or Cargill but, then, the close balance didn’t seem to be a factor in other passages that she sings. Incidentally, the cor anglais player in the Orchestre Lamoureux demonstrates poetic artistry in this lovely number. Pierre Mollet sings the small role of Brander well.

Knowing how standards of choral singing have risen generally over the last six decades, I wondered how the Chœurs Elisabeth Brasseur would come across. I think it would be fair to say that they don’t have the refinement of the London Symphony Chorus on either the Rattle or later Colin Davis recordings but there’s a good deal to admire, nonetheless. The choral singing is pretty precise; for instance, the French singers portray frolicking peasants very well – and sing at a cracking pace – in the ‘Ronde de paysans’ in Scene 2. But though the choir sings well, what really leaves its mark is the sheer character they bring to the proceedings. Only once could I fault them in this regard: during the Ride to the Abyss, the praying women past whom Faust and Méphistophélès speed sound very decorous – even when they scream. However, on the other side of the ledger, you’ll go a long way before you hear singers who so vividly portray drunken revellers as they sing the fugue that follows Brander’s song. To put it mildly, these French singers sound very tipsy and it seems that the tenors in particular have been hitting the vin ordinaire to some purpose! In fact, the whole episode of Auerbach’s Cellar is one helluva party: I’m sure Berlioz would have approved thoroughly. In the Pandemonium the men of the choir sound properly brazen – I think the relative closeness with which they’re recorded emphasises that. Earlier, the men are to the fore again in the Chorus of Soldiers and Chorus of Students. This whole episode is delivered with great swagger and lustiness, especially when the two choruses combine in an aural melee. The closing Apotheosis of Marguerite is very nicely sung, though the children can’t really be heard.

The orchestral contribution is fascinating. It’s true that the Orchestre Lamoureux isn’t as polished an ensemble as the LSO which plays for Davis and Rattle. For example, the brass playing in ‘Voici des roses’ isn’t the sweetest you’ll ever hear. However, like their colleagues in the choir, the orchestra’s involvement is characterful. The bright-toned brass and woodwinds play their full part in making the scene in Auerbach’s Cellar so vivid. Then, at the start – and finish – of the Chorus of Soldiers and Chorus of Students, listen to the reedy bassoons and woody clarinets. What a sound! You won’t hear anything like that in today’s homogenised orchestral world but, my goodness, it sounds great in this context. Again, at the start of Méphistophélès’ ‘Évocation’ in Part II the tangy sound produced by the woodwinds is superb. The ‘Menuet des follets’ that follows exudes French timbres and is very well done. Much earlier in the proceedings, the brash, bright tone of the brass in particular, makes the ‘Marche hongroise’ a vivid experience.

And what of Markevitch’s conducting? As I indicated earlier, there are times when I wish he’d lingered just a bit more. Perhaps the most disappointing example comes right at the end. The Apotheosis of Marguerite is affectingly played and sung but the first time I heard it I felt it was just a bit too swiftly paced – Markevitch takes 4:44. Sure enough, both Rattle and Davis take about a minute longer and their greater expansiveness just gives the music that extra time to breathe. As a result, both English conductors – Sir Colin especially – find more poetry in the music. For the most part, though, I found Markevitch convincing and exciting. He drives the ‘Marche hongroise’ swiftly but the results are spirited. I’ve already mentioned the vivid portrayal of Auerbach’s Cellar, which surely derives from the rostrum. The trio between the three principal characters at the end of Part III is given a pell-mell performance; the results are full-blooded and exciting. The Ride to the Abyss builds up a fair head of steam, too. Markevitch is a committed and exciting exponent of the score. There are one or two oddities, though. He makes a cut of 49 bars in the Easter Hymn at the end of Scene 4 and in ‘Dors, heureux Faust!’ another small cut is made. Some twenty bars of music – some dialogue between Faust and Méphistophélès - are cut from the ‘Récitatif et chasse’ before the Ride to the Abyss. It’s hard to see what purpose these excisions serve and I wonder if the reason is that the cuts were there in the edition of the score that Markevitch was using. It’s a pity, but overall the cuts are not drastic. I was surprised that Markevitch has the short recitative after the Pandemonium sung by a solo bass – Roux, I think – rather than by the first basses in the choir as Davis and Rattle, quite correctly, do. Again, it may be that this was in the edition of the score that Markevitch was using. None of these things are hanging offences and they don’t detract from a pretty considerable interpretation of the score.

A key question for collectors will be: what does the remastered sixty-year-old recording sound like? The answer is that it has come up very well. I’ve indicated already that the soloists and the choir are quite forwardly balanced but I didn’t find that this affected my enjoyment: plenty of orchestral detail is readily audible. The age of the recording can be discerned in the rather bright edge to the violin tone and in the fact that in general the treble is a bit more accentuated than the bass but, overall, the sound is pretty good and it has come up well in this remastering. Perhaps inevitably, the recording hasn’t got the sonic punch of modern sound at points such as the Pandemonium. The DG recording is pretty strong here but Davis and, even more so, Rattle benefit from recordings that really convey the excitement. In their recordings the bass drum and, indeed, the percussion as a whole, as well as the LSO’s potent and incisive brass section, send Faust to his doom in a spectacular fashion that the DG sound can’t quite equal. I listened to the performance right the way through on both CD and BD-A and also did a good deal of comparative sampling and I think you’ll be impressed with either the remastered CDs or with the BD-A. There is one small point. On a couple of occasions one track follows another with unseemly haste. I have in mind the gap – or lack of it – between the end of Part II and the start of part III on the BD-A – on CD it’s not an issue because this is where you have to change CDs. In both formats there’s scarcely a gap between the end of the trio that concludes Part III and the opening of Part IV (‘D’amour l’ardente flamme’). That’s a shame and surely these small but irritating segues could so easily have been avoided.

The discs come in a hardback book casing and the documentation includes the full libretto and a short note comparing and contrasting the musical personalities of Berlioz and Markevitch. Everything in the booklet is in English, French and German.

I hadn’t heard this recording before but I’m jolly glad that I have now had the opportunity. Despite a few drawbacks, which would prevent it from being a primary recommendation, it’s a considerable performance of Berlioz’s amazingly imaginative Faustian drama. It’s one that all Berlioz collectors should try to hear. Berlioz and Markevitch have been extremely well served in this handsome reissue. If you are tempted, though, don’t delay: as I indicated at the start of this review, the release is badged as a Limited Edition so copies may not be around for too long,

John Quinn

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