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Robert SCHUMANN (1813-1869)
Scenes from Goethe’s Faust (1844-53) [116.42]
Iwona Hossa (soprano I) - Sorge, Angel, Magna Peccatrix; Christiane Libor (soprano II) - Gretchen, Una Poenitentium, Not; Anna Lubanska (alto I) - Mulier Samaritana, Mangel; Ewa Marciniec (alto II) - Martha, Maria Aegyptiaca, Schuld, Mater Gloriosa; Daniel Kirch (tenor) - Ariel, Pater Ecstaticus; Jaakko Kortekangas (baritone) - Faust, Doctor Marianus, Pater Seraphicus; Andrew Gangestad (bass) - Mephistopheles, Evil Spirit, Pater Profundus
Warsaw Boys’ Choir, Warsaw Philharmonic Choir
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra/Antoni Wit
rec. Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall, 21-28 April 2009
NAXOS NBD0015 BD-A [116.42]

Schumann’s Szenen aus Goethe’s Faust is curiously listed by Archiv Musik among the composer’s operas, but it is very far from bring that. It is rather a collection of individual scenes from Goethe’s play, as its title implies. These do not seek to form a unified dramatic structure, and were composed over an extended period of nearly ten years during which the composer was slowly but surely succumbing to madness. The last section, a complete setting of the final scene from Part II of Goethe’s massive epic, was the first to be composed, and is a comparatively straightforward setting for chorus and orchestra with elaborate individual solo parts. The same text (somewhat abridged) was also employed by Mahler in his Eighth Symphony, and it has to be admitted that Schumann’s setting is effectively eclipsed by the monumental treatment of the text by the later composer. The scenes from Goethe’s Part I came next, including a complete setting of the Garden Scene, Gretchen’s Ach neige and the scene with the Evil Spirit in the cathedral. Both of the latter had already been set by Schubert, among others, but Schumann’s more histrionic treatment of the texts is very effective especially in the final section. The overture was the last section of the score to be composed, but before that Schumann had written his treatment of the sunrise scene, the scene where Faust is blinded by the symbolic figure of Care, and the death of Faust himself. These three sections from Part II of Goethe’s epic are far and away the most adventurous sections of the score. Here Schumann has to fear no comparisons with other composers since his settings remain effectively unchallenged. I suspect other composers have set these words, but none of their treatments have survived in the repertoire.
The somewhat ragbag resulting score was not even performed in its complete form until some years after the composer’s death. It tended to languish in the outer reaches of the repertory until Benjamin Britten revived it at the Aldeburgh Festival and committed his performances to disc. The results revealed a work which at its best comprehensively outclassed all of Schumann’s other choral pieces. Indeed it teetered on the brink of being operatic in the true dramatic sense; the broken-backed text of his ‘real’ opera Genoveva effectively scuppered that work.
The role of Faust has been taken up enthusiastically by the very top flight of baritones: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who recorded the role for Britten, subsequently repeated it for Klee on EMI (review). Later recordings have featured artists of the calibre of Bryn Terfel and Christian Gehaher. There are some other superbly written roles as well: the bass who takes the part of Mephistopheles in the death scene (and also sings the Evil Spirit who tempts Gretchen in the cathedral), Gretchen (featured in all three scenes of the Part I excerpts), the tenor who sings Ariel in the sunrise scene, and the soprano who takes the part of Care who finally condemns Faust to blindness.
In his recording Britten was able to call upon well-established artists from his usual Aldeburgh coterie. John Shirley-Quirk as Mephistopheles had some difficulty with the lowest notes of what is essential a deep bass part. Elisabeth Harwood as Gretchen was uncomfortably stretched by the loudest passages in her role, especially her heartfelt cry for salvation during O neige. Peter Pears, although he managed a stunning top B flat at the moment of the sunrise, simply sounded too old for Ariel. Jennifer Vyvyan, also coming towards the end of her career, sounded rather peevish as Care. All of these artists as well as Fischer-Dieskau were however superlative vocal actors. They brought the characters to life with a stunning immediacy which the performers in this Polish recording are unable to match.
Add to this the fact that the balance of the recorded sound in this new issue is not ideal. The woodwind are very far forward in the mix, with an uncomfortably shrill piccolo in the scene with Care. The strings are somewhat recessed in the balance, failing to project through Schumann’s sometimes heavy scoring. I understand that Britten made some adjustments to the composer’s orchestration, although his English Chamber Orchestra were presumably a smaller body than Wit’s Polish National. The more forward placing of the voices in Britten’s recording allows the singers to point their words with greater immediacy. Here, although the voices are naturally more mellifluous that with Britten’s idiosyncratic cast, the effect is of a more generalised and smooth vocalisation. This is pleasing in its own right but sometimes seems to lack dramatic punch. One should note that both Britten and Wit employ Schumann’s original shorter version of the final chorus Alles Vergängliche rather than the longer and less conventionally classical conclusion given as an alternative in the score, which Schumann himself preferred; although Clara did not. One might have wished that we could have been given the chorus in both versions, for listeners to make their own selection. As it is, the later version can be heard in the recording by Herreweghe on Harmonia Mundi. On a personal level I am inclined to agree with the judgement of the husband rather than the wife.
What does make this Blu-ray disc so valuable is its impressive use of the facilities of the new medium. Not only are we given the whole work uninterrupted on one disc, but one is able with a TV monitor to switch on subtitles throughout the music, which does lend a greater immediacy to one’s involvement with the action. One would have liked Goethe’s stage directions, which Schumann carefully inserted into the score, to have been supplied as well, but the loss is not serious. The Britten recording came with a rhyming translation by Louis MacNeice which was inevitably somewhat free. Here the translation is more direct, although it is curious that when Mephistopheles declaims “Es is vollbracht” after Faust’s death. It is at first (correctly) translated as “It is fulfilled” only for the choral repetition of the phrase to be given as “It’s over” - which oddly does not have the same sense of finality. Incidentally in the orchestral postlude to this scene Britten - without any warrant in Schumann’s score - slows down considerably. Wit correctly keeps the music moving, ironically to more emotional and inevitable effect.
Listening to the recording on a high-quality audio set-up does not do much to rectify the problems of balance. The piccolo sounds even shriller than on standard television loudspeakers, and unless one has a monitor attached one loses the advantage of the on-screen subtitles. The more conventional setting of the final scene sounds good with these well-produced voices. Britten’s cast don’t really produce an ideal blend here. There are however alternative versions of this score available at mid-price which have a more dramatic effect in the earlier sections of the music. Even on the best equipment the sound on the old Britten set is more immediate than the slightly tubby acoustic here.
Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review (CD): William Kreindler