Robert Schumann Szenen aus Goethes Faust (feat. conductor: Nikolaus Harnoncourt; feat. orchestra: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra) Review

Released 2009.  

BBC Review

A ravishing new account; a lithe and lyrically rich labour of love.

Michael Quinn 2009

Schumann’s setting of the mighty metaphysical treatise that is Goethe’s Faust has been largely neglected on disc. Surprisingly so, given that the few recordings it has prompted have all had something of interest to say about this large-scale oratorio with decidedly operatic leanings.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s ravishing new account proves a lithe and lyrically rich labour of love following in the footsteps of well-received studio accounts of Schumann’s earlier oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri and his only opera, Genoveva. Recorded live last April in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, it balances intimacy and scale, philosophy and poetry, soaring melodies and searing, soulful drama to wholly persuasive effect.

A concern for beauty of expression is the glue that holds everything together, the sense of the spiritual that results matching Benjamin Britten’s deeply felt Aldeburgh performance (released by Decca to mark his 60th birthday in 1973), and is subtly inked in by Harnoncourt’s signature sense of refined elegance. Not as lively as Bernard Klee’s 1982 EMI account, which emphatically stresses the operatic scale of the first two parts, the soloists here – not least the vividly idiomatic Faust of Christian Gerhaher in a performance to match Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on the two earlier recordings and the fresh, vital Gretchen of Christiane Iven – root the narrative thread in flesh-and-blood believability.

Harnoncourt is clearly at ease with the stylistic tensions of the piece, the first two parts (portraits of Gretchen and Faust) composed in 1844 in Leipzig and owing much to Mendelssohn, the concluding section, setting Goethe’s mystical finale, following five years later in Wagner-dominated Dresden. Adroitly blending discourse and drama, Harnoncourt marshals superbly characterised playing from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra to frame no less striking contributions from his singers.

There’s strong vocal support in depth in the shape of Werner Güra’s Ariel, Mojca Erdmann’s Marthe and the scene-stealing Mephistopheles of Alistair Miles. The Netherlands Radio and Children’s choirs add glowing underpinning of their own while their orchestral colleagues clearly relish the seamless marriage of the prosaic and the sublime with never a hint of getting carried away, as the Berlin Philharmonic has a tendency to do on Claudio Abbado’s 1995 recording for Sony.

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