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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
La Damnation de Faust (1845-6) [127:07]
Marguerite - (soprano), Faust - Dénes Gulyás (tenor), Méphistophélès - Robert Lloyd (baritone), Brander - Manfred Volz (bass), Christine Oelze (soprano).
Kölner Rundfundchor, Südfunkchor Stuttgart, Chor des NDR Hamburg
Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt/Eliahu Inbal
rec. 16-18 February, 1989, Alte Oper, Frankfurt.DDD
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94391 [58:06 + 69:01]

This recording was originally issued, I believe, by the Denon label, along with many of Inbal’s other Frankfurt recordings. Subsequently licensed to Brilliant Classics, all his Berlioz recordings were issued in a substantial boxed set in 2003 for the Berlioz bi-centenary (review). This separate reissue of La Damnation de Faust is welcome, not least for its vivid sound.
 
The orchestral playing on this set is pretty good though the LSO manages even greater finesse - and no little power - for Sir Colin Davis on his October 2000 version for LSO Live (LSO 0008). It looks as if Inbal had a pretty large chorus at his disposal and they sing with great commitment - the men are excellent in Scene Six, for example, singing the drinkers’ chorus with suitable gusto. I suspect the LSO Chorus, for Davis, was a bit smaller in size but they too make a very fine showing. One small detail caught my ear in the Ride to the Abyss. Along the way we hear a couple of interjections from the female voices singing lines from a litany. Davis has his ladies sing this with a consciously rough, uncultured timbre to sound like peasants; it’s most effective. Inbal’s singers are more conventional.
 
For his Faust Inbal has the Hungarian tenor, Dénes Gulyás. His performance is variable. His tone is often ardent and ringing, as at the very start though here - and elsewhere - he sounds somewhat strained by some of the higher notes. Davis’s tenor, Giuseppe Sabbatini is more polished overall, makes a more pleasing sound and gets further under the skin of the music - he sounds much more desperate and frightened during the Ride to the Abyss without resorting to ugly histrionics. However, slightly to my surprise Gulyás makes a very good job of ‘Merci doux crépuscule’; perhaps it’s not without significance that for much of this aria he is required to sing gently. Overall, however, I prefer Sabbatini.
 
Robert Lloyd is a properly commanding presence as Méphistophélès, exultant in his final triumph over Faust. Yet he can be subtle and insinuating too and sings ‘Voici des roses’ very well. In comparison Michele Perusi (for Davis) has a slightly less imposing voice and that enables him to sound more sensuous and seductive in ‘Voici des roses’. In truth, both singers are very good though I don’t think either quite matches Jules Bastin on the 1973 Davis recording for Philips - and he is the only francophone among them.
 
I think of the American singer, Maria Ewing, more as a soprano than a mezzo though I believe she has essayed both soprano and mezzo roles during her career. She is a vulnerable, appealing Marguerite. I like the way she sings the Roi de Thulé solo, the style fairly simple and direct. Davis has the Albanian mezzo, Enkelejda Shkosa. She’s quite a deep mezzo with a naturally richer timbre than Ewing. Shkosa is rounder of tone and more overtly expressive than Ewing but I’m not sure that Ewing’s style is not more suitable for a portrayal of a young girl. Later Ewing gives a good account of ‘D’amour l’ardente flamme’; her singing is touching and with a pleasing degree of feeling. By contrast, Shkosa seems rather to overdo the expressiveness and, perhaps as a result, not every note is hit right in the centre. So Miss Ewing is to be preferred - though Josephine Veasey on Davis’s 1973 set is better than either.
 
‘D’amour l’ardente flamme’ is introduced by a wonderful cor anglais solo. On the Inbal recording this is well played but on Davis LSO Live version we hear a wistfulness and gentle eloquence that the Frankfurt player can’t quite match. This, I think, is rather typical; Inbal is good but at most points where I made a comparison I found the Davis version had a degree or two more sophistication and evidence of keen-eared attention to detail. Thus in the concluding Apotheosis of Marguerite Inbal is appreciably faster than Davis - taking a full two minutes less over the section - and he doesn’t come anywhere near matching the delicacy and atmosphere that Davis achieves in these pages.. Again, the ‘Ballet des Sylphes’ is gossamer-light and utterly magical in the Davis performance; indeed the preceding episode of Faust’s dream is delicate and completely beguiling from Davis and Inbal, though his performance is good enough doesn’t match this level of sophistication.
 
I think the recorded sound may have something - but not everything - to do with my preference for Davis in the more restrained passages. Inbal’s recording is excellent in many ways; the sound is clear and bright, though with good depth, and the acoustic of Frankfurt’s Alte Oper is more spacious than the Barbican, the venue for Davis. Yet I feel that Inbal’s recording is too ‘present’ at times and this robs episodes such as the final Apotheosis of a degree of magic. On the other hand, the sound is pretty powerful and impressive at such moments as the Pandemonium but, that said, the LSO Live sound packs a punch at that point too - the LSO bass drum really makes a telling contribution hereabouts.
 
Interpretatively, too, I think Davis has the edge; he knows the music of Berlioz inside out and he knows just when to give the music that little bit of extra space and when to be urgent. The Ride to the Abyss is more exciting in his hands, though there’s little difference between the two performances in terms of pacing, and in the celebrated ‘Marche hongroise’ Davis is just that fraction steadier in his tempo. As a result there’s just a hint - but no more - of ominous power; by comparison Inbal sounds a bit jaunty.
 
Brilliant Classics supply no text or translation for Inbal. Perhaps that’s understandable at the price but it is a bit of a handicap since the words aren’t exactly familiar. With LSO Live you get a full text and translation, albeit in their customary minuscule typeface.
 
In summary, this Inbal version features good choral singing and orchestral playing, good, clear sound and two of the three soloists make a strong impression. It makes a decent proposition, especially at the price, though the LSO Live version offers a more compelling Berlioz experience and better all-round value for money.
 
John Quinn






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