SCHUMANN: Scenes from Goethe’s Faust – soloists /Warwa Philharmonic Ch. & Orch./ Antoni Wit – Naxos audio Blu-ray

by | Nov 15, 2011 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

ROBERT SCHUMANN: Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, WoO 3 – Iwona Hossa, soprano I / Christiane Libor, soprano II/ Anna Lubańska, alto I/ Ewa Marciniec, alto II / Daniel Kirch, tenor/ Jaakko Kortekangas, baritone/ Andrew Gangestad, bass/ Warsaw Boys’ Choir /Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/ Antoni Wit – Naxos Blu-ray audio-only 5.0 channel NBD0015, 1:56:42 ****:
Schumann’s interest in Goethe’s Faust as a subject for musical treatment went back to around the time the poet finished Part 2 of the work shortly before his death in 1832. However, Schumann didn’t get down to business with the Faust legend until 1844, when he reread Goethe’s work while accompanying wife Clara on her Russian concert tour of that year. Bored and insulted to be “the other Schumann” during the trip, he decided he needed to start a new project that would engage his interests but didn’t know what travails he was setting himself up for. Later that year he complained to Mendelssohn that his Faust manuscript was languishing in a drawer, and he thought he might never publish the work. That part, at least, was true though Schumann did finish his Scenes from Goethe’s Faust nine years later, composing the overture last, in 1853.
As in his other large works for voices and orchestra, Schumann was apparently attracted to the story of the hero’s redemption through constant upward striving. Schumann’s Paradies und die Peri of 1843 had a similar theme, so it makes sense that in his treatment of Faust Schumann worked backward, setting first of all the redemption scene at the end of Goethe’s Part 2. Part 1 has all the sex and gore, which makes its use as fodder for opera understandable and predictable. But up to Schumann’s day, no one had tackled the grand mix of philosophy and metaphysics in Goethe’s Faust, Part 2. Schumann’s treatment of the redemption scene was premiered in 1849 during Goethe centenary observances in Dresden, Leipzig, and Weimar. The premiere was a success, especially in Dresden; Schumann happily remarked that members of the audience told him his music helped them understand the poetry for the first time.
This gave Schumann new impetus, and that same year, his busiest year of composing, he wrote the first three scenes, which constitute Part 1 of his oratorio. He completed the next three scenes (Part 2) in 1850. However, as Schumann predicted, he never published the work, and the piece was first performed in its entirety six years after his death, in Cologne in 1862.
Given the long gestation period of the work, it’s not surprising that the three parts vary stylistically. Schumann was the first to acknowledge this, saying that all three parts of the work should probably be performed together only as a “curiosity.” Part 3, the first to be composed, bears a family resemblance to Schumann’s Paradise und die Peri, his oratorio “for happy people.” The mood is mostly upbeat as befits the scene and subject. Part 3 takes place in a rocky landscape following Faust’s death. It is inhabited by holy anchorites who sing about their contemplation of the heavenly and introduce the theme of redemption. Choruses of Blessed Boys and angels take up the theme, the angels elaborating the notion that the spirit of Faust must be translated to the empyrean, where it can be purified by the intervention of a penitent woman, namely Faust’s earthly lover Gretchen, and the Mater Gloriosa, who welcomes Faust “to higher spheres.” Throughout, Schumann’s orchestration is light and airy, at least by the composer’s standards, with effective solos for the cello and the winds, and the vocal-choral writing is suavely mellifluous. Joan Chissell, English music critic and Schumann biographer, says that the model here is Mendelssohn, while the model for Schumann’s Parts 1 and 2 is the composer’s Dresden colleague, Richard Wagner.
I further note a significant difference between Parts 1 and 2. Part 1 starts with the scene in Marthe’s garden, where Mephistopheles has brought Faust for an assignation with Gretchen. It has the economical development of a love scene in opera. It’s followed by Gretchen’s placing flowers before the image of the Mater Gloriosa, asking forgiveness for her mounting sins. The final scene in Part 1 is the most dramatic: Gretchen is praying in the cathedral, but an evil spirit at her side tells her that penitence is in vain, that her crimes (which include the murder of her own mother and of her child by Faust) outweigh any hopes of forgiveness. In the background the chorus, in its first appearance, intones the Dies irae with increasing vehemence, seeming to mock Gretchen with the words “Quid sum miser tunc dicturus? / Quem patronem rogaturus?” (“What shall a wretch like me say? / Who will intercede for me?”).
Part 2 takes us to a pleasant landscape where Faust wakes at sunrise after his Walpurgisnacht debauch. The beauty of the place awakes him to a higher calling, the search for earthly beauty. For his last two scenes, Schumann leaps over Goethe’s portrayal of this search to Faust’s blindness and death. In the second scene, Faust confronts Four Gray Women, allegorical figures representing Want, Debt, Care, and Need. Care appropriately blinds him, but with his blinding Faust puts his earlier cares behind him and with a new kind of enlightenment thinks up a project to help mankind by reclaiming the ocean for arable land. In the next scene, a gaggle of hellish lemurs, sung by the boys’ choir, dig Faust’s grave under Mephistopheles’ supervision. Faust thinks the sounds are those of workmen beginning his great project. The moment of his supposed triumph is so comforting that he wants to prolong it, but instead he collapses into the arms of the lemurs; they lay him on the ground, dead. Faust has violated his pact with Mephistopheles, who made it a condition that if ever Faust wants to hang on to a moment in his life, he would then forfeit his life.
These last three scenes, and especially the last of all, have none of the economy of those in Part 1 but seem to unfold in a leisurely, seamlessly flowing manner that anticipates Wagnerian endless melody. As with Tristan or the Ring, there are some dead patches, some longueurs that Schumann manages to avoid in the more economical scenes of Part 1. And despite spots where inspiration flags and the action almost stalls, it’s obvious that Schumann has made something of an aesthetic breakthrough here. The portrayal of Faust’s death and Mephistopheles’ mocking obsequies is chillingly dramatic.
This scene is pretty chilling in Antoni Wit’s performance, more so than in the rival high-res version from Nicholas Harnoncourt (on an RCO Live SACD), where Faust’s death seems more like a foregone conclusion than a horrific climax. But I have to say that in my longtime favorite version, the Decca recording by Benjamin Britten, this scene has more of the outsized drama that it needs to bring home the idea of supernatural striving and defeat. That’s true as well in other parts of the score, particularly the opening scene in the garden. Here, it takes quite a while for Wit and his singers to warm up, whereas Britten’s Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elizabeth Harwood immediately capture the right air of youthful ardor. Part of the problem is that Wit’s Gretchen, Christiane Libor, sounds far too matronly to bring the role off. She sings well enough, certainly, and sounds more convincing as Una Poenitentium (a Penitent Woman) than as a young lover, but I prefer Elizabeth Harwood and Harnoncourt’s Gretchen, Christiane Iven.
Jaakko Kortekangas, the Faust in Wit’s version, has a noble bearing and manages the dramatic transformation that takes place in Faust’s character as he changes from youthful sybarite to a man possessed of an inner spiritual light. Wit’s Mephistopheles, rich-voiced Andrew Gangestad, is a good singer and actor as well, though he doesn’t bring the snaky insinuation that John Shirley-Quirk brings to the role in the Britten version. Wit’s other singers, all of whom are asked to sing more than one roles, are fine too.
There’s a higher level of drama in the Britten version and a more theatrical air brought about by some tasteful stage business, such as characters obviously moving about on the stage or singing from the wings. But unlike Harnoncourt, whose account is mostly somewhat cool and low-key, Wit is as successful in the dramatic sections as in the more lyrical ones, and in Wit’s performance the drama builds as Faust’s life unravels in Part 2. Where Wit shines, however, is in Part 3. Somehow, he manages to make this section, which has the quality of pure oratorio rather than oratorio with operatic overtones, register in the company of the other parts. Neither Britten nor Harnoncourt avoid a certain tacked-on quality in Schumann’s Part 3, but Wit builds a sense of cumulative spiritual energy that gives muscle to a section that can seem overly prettified. This sense of progression, so hard to achieve in Schumann’s collection of seven cherry-picked scenes, makes Wit’s version pretty much indispensible. A minor point maybe, but Blu-ray aids and abets this impression: it’s really very nice to hear the oratorio straight through, without having to change discs following Part 2, as you have to do with any CD or SACD presentation of this nearly two-hour work.
Naxos’s Blu-ray sound is very good—open, detailed, impactive—though it doesn’t have the sense of depth and spaciousness that Harnoncourt’s SACD recording, from the marvelous Concertgebouw, has. Nonetheless, this is an important addition to the catalog of Schumann works in high-resolution sound. [Like all the Naxos audio-only Blu-ray releases, it can be played on any Blu-ray deck without requiring a video display…Ed.]
—Lee Passarella

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