Magnificent Singing in Schumann’s Version of Goethe’s Faust in Vienna

AustriaAustria Schumann: Soloists, Vienna State Opera Youth Chorus (chorus master: Johannes Mertl), Wiener Singakademie (chorus master: Heinz Ferlesch), Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Harding (conductor). Konzerthaus, Vienna, 22.11.2015. (MB)

Schumann, Szenen aus Goethes Faust, WoO 3 

Faust, Pater Seraphicus, Dr Marianus – Christian Gerhaher
Gretchen, Una poenitentum – Christiane Karg
Mephistopheles, Böser Geist – Alastair Miles
Marthe, Sorge, Magna Peccatrix – Christiana Landshamer
Mangel, Maria Aegyptica, Mater Gloriosa – Gerhild Romberger
Noth, Mulier Samaritana – Jennifer Johnston
Schuld – Anna Huntley
Ariel, Pater Exstaticus – Andrew Staples
Pater Profundus – Franz-Josef Selig
Eine Büßerin – Elisabeth Erhenfellner
Chorus soloist – Michael Sachsenmaier 

I have had to wait a long time to hear Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust ‘live’, since, as an undergraduate, buying a second-hand copy of Britten’s recording. Perhaps there has been a London performance since I have become a regular concert-goer; if so, I have not noticed it. Quite why is baffling. It is, by any standards, a fine work, perhaps not so ‘individual’ as the Schumann we know from the piano music and songs, although perhaps that is as much a matter of our conception of ‘individuality’ as anything else. There is certainly ‘originality’ – that most Romantic of constructs, but a construct to which we all, if we are honest and not absurdly modish, remain rightly in thrall – in much of the orchestral writing, which whatever its kinship with the work of other composers, could hardly ever, perhaps could never, have been written by anyone else. Yes, it requires a good few soloists and a chorus, but so do many other works. And if Goethe notoriously told Eckermann that Mozart would have had to compose his Faust, then Goethe was notoriously wrong about all manner of things musical.

Comparisons more odious than usual presented themselves early on, given that I had heard Bernard Haitink and the Chamber of Orchestra just two nights earlier. Nevertheless, if Daniel Harding’s brisk way with the Overture, at least initially, was not how I hear it in my head, it had its own justification, and he showed himself perfectly willing to yield, rather beautifully, for the more ‘feminine’ – forgive the gendered language, but it is surely apt in this of all cases – music. A contrast between Faust and Gretchen was clearly being set up, both in work and in performance, and yet something in common too: in typically nineteenth-century terms, Eve was created from Adam’s rib. I need not labour the point by saying too  much about Robert and Clara. In any case, female voices are far from neglected as the work proceeds, Schumann almost careless in his requirements. And so, after that rather Harnoncourt-like opening, I had no quarrel, or even query, with Harding’s tempi. There was plenty of ebb and flow, and if there might sometimes have been more colour in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra’s response – not to mention a few too many fluffs in the brass department – there was good playing throughout, excellent in the more vigorous sections and often beguiling in the more ‘poetic’, sensitive passages. Choral singing was excellent throughout, too, both from the Wiener Singakademie, large in numbers yet lithe and lively, and from the young singers from the Opernschule der Wiener Staatsoper, winningly seraphic. The Dies irae passages properly chilled, yet without melodrama; musical values were always to the fore.

The solo singing was for me the highlight. Since he had the lion’s share of it, it is hardly surprising that I should mention Christian Gerhaher first and foremost. The beauty of his vocal delivery was matched to a tee by the acuity of his verbal response. These were clearly words that meant a great deal to him – they do, surely, to any German – but nothing was taken for granted. Gerhaher was not ‘just’ singing Goethe; he was singing Schumann’s Goethe. His shading and phrasing were such as one might have expected in a performance of Dichterliebe. There was, moreover, Faustian defiance, when called for; and drama worthy of the stage – if unstageable – in Faust’s death. Gerhaher’s roles in the Third Part were carefully differentiated; now he was one soloist among many. And those other soloists were an impressive bunch too; there was not a weak link in the cast. Christiane Karg offered a well-judged match of vocal refulgence and drama, again always founded in the text. Andrew Staples sounded every inch a Tamino in his roles, Schumann’s fantastic writing for Ariel benefiting from a meltingly Romantic evocation in vocal and instrumental terms. Alastair Miles proved a stentorian Mephistopheles, and Christina Landshamer a perky, intelligent soprano. Franz-Josef Selig sounded as his usual, beneficent self: always more than welcome. Ensemble writing was always well attended to, balances permitting Schumann’s lines to tell both contrapuntally and harmonically.

This is a work we need to hear far more often, but this was a good occasion on which to start. Like many, I really have not the slightest idea what Goethe meant by his ‘ewig-Weibliche’ panacea, and probably should rather keep it that way, but Schumann’s unexpectedly – even when one knows it – non-soaring conclusion offers, if not a solution, then, after the splendidly blazingly writing beforehand, a welcome deflection. That, moreover, was how it sounded here.

Mark Berry

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