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CD Review

Robert Schumann

Scenes From Goethe's Faust, WoO 3

  • Mari Eriksmoen, soprano
  • Christiane Karg, soprano
  • Bernarda Fink, mezzo-soprano
  • Andrew Staples, tenor
  • Christian Gerhaher, baritone
  • Alastair Miles, bass
  • Tareq Nazmi, bass
  • Kurt Rydl, bass
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Daniel Harding
BR-Klassik 900122
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The composition of Goethe's Faust took most of his adult life… the first part of the dramatic tragedy was completed in 1806, and published two years later; the second was not finished until 1831 a couple of years or so after a revision of the first part; yet the earliest, Urfaust dates from the mid 1770s. Perhaps because of its central place in literature, psychology, philosophy and even sociology, it's easy to overlook the fact that Schumann's Scenes From Goethe's Faust (Szenen aus Goethes Faust) came so soon after completion of the work by Goethe.

Composed at a time when earlier critics had decided that Schumann was "virtually insane", or at least past his best, the Scenes From Goethe's Faust have sadly received scant – even negative – attention in their performing history. To be charitable, one might attribute this to a poor understanding by musicians and listeners of exactly where the work falls: is it cantata, opera, oratorio, choral symphony? Is it primarily a representation of the themes, human and social, with which Goethe was preoccupied for so long? To what extent is it a musical offering in its own right?

These are questions with good answers in the illuminating essays by Christian Gerhaher and Vera Baur that come with these two CDs (lasting 72 and 43 minutes). But they are also answered – as they should be – by the performance. Daniel Harding leaves us in no doubt that this music has a legitimate life of its own, that the characters act as they do because they live; not because Schumann wanted them to portray any ideals or stereo- or archetypes. Few if any other work(s) caused Schumann to work so long and as hard as this one. Complex and all-embracing that the composer eventually made Scenes From Goethe's Faust, it is so because of Schumann's response to Goethe's own poetry, sense of drama and tragedy and literary achievement. And not because of the pre-existing folk tale, which Schumann also knew, and which dates from the sixteenth century and had already received literary development by the likes of Marlowe shortly afterwards. Scenes From Goethe's Faust is very much Schumann's own work, own mind, own result.

The performance has strong forward momentum from start to finish. Some of the male roles are sung almost as would Heldentenors, for example. There is no sentiment, no dwelling on emotions. Yet the sensitivity to the tragedy is never missing… the way Faust's death at the end of Part One is portrayed [CD.1 tr.12] is a good example. On top of sense of individual presence and immediacy, there is strong and purposeful interaction, dialog, communication between the singers; and between orchestral sections for that matter.

Each of the singers, what's more, has a pleasing and approachable character, which is distinct – despite the fact that they each sing more than one role. Delivery, enunciation, articulation, projection are just as you would expect from this distinguished cast. Soprano Christiane Karg (Gretchen) and baritone, Christian Gerhaher (Faust – with a remarkable vocal resemblance to the late Fischer-Diskau) stand out – as does mezzo Bernarda Fink for their characterizations, versatility and concern – successfully yet unobtrusively achieved – to draw us into the situations in which they find themselves; and the rhetoric or declamation (never overdone, never histrionic) required by their more distilled and abstracted roles in Part Two.

In Scenes From Goethe's Faust you'll hear orchestral music of the same world as Schumann's symphonies; and not the harmonic and tonal magic of his smaller-scale (especially piano) works. Yet the writing (and here the performance) is never burly, unmanageable or unmanaged. The players and singers fully respect – enhance and endorse, in fact – the scale and thematic and textural worlds which Schumann needed to inhabit for his treatment of Faust to come alive. While there's nothing rhetorical or emotionally "loud", all the meaning, pathos, regret and wisdom of Goethe's text is conveyed by Schumann; and very successfully interpreted by Harding and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. In place of bravado or domineering delivery there is confidence and mild certainty. And the tempi adopted, and little, unexpected hesitations, suggest a humanity which too bold a symphonic treatment in Schumann's hands could perhaps have submerged, for all the composer's sensitivity.

Indeed, listen to the opening of Part Two [CD.2 tr.1] for music of almost Elgarian, near transcendental, penetration to the heart of Goethe's creation. The implied and actual offset between soloists (vocal and instrumental) and tutti/ensemble writing is handled well by these performers. Once again, this is achieved chiefly by their great authority. In part, this sense of (musical) confidence answers the question, What kind of work is Scenes From Goethe's Faust? A dramatic one. And one full of human insights. Varieties in dynamic, pace, enunciation and the way the exposition and reflection are handled (in the "Gerettet is das Lied" [CD.2. tr.s 5,6], for example) show just how sensitively Harding and his forces approach the essence of Goethe's monumental work. There is an inevitable early-Romantic detachment (Doctor Marianus' (Gerhaher again) wonderful aria, "Hier ist die Aussicht frei" [CD.2 tr.7] could almost be Schubert). But the performers have everything invested in the music.

The acoustic (live, in the Munich Herkulessaal der Residenz in January 2013) is almost as good as one could want: clear, clean, resounding but not over bright. It places soloists to the fore, which is as it should be given their real feeling for the music – although there are times when the contrast is just a little too strong. The orchestra and choir, though, are hardly placed in a "supporting" role since every nuance of the winds and strings, especially, is audible and easily heard. The booklet is particularly well produced. Its book form has the full text in German and English, a glossary of Faustian terms, discussions of the music, text and context and brief illustrated biographies of the singers. There are a dozen or so recordings of this work in the current catalog; but this must be considered one of the best and can be safely recommended.

Copyright © 2014, Mark Sealey