Karg and Gerhaher Excel in a Memorable Account of Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schumann: Soloists; Choir of Eltham College; London Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Daniel Harding. Barbican Hall, London, 21.3.2016 (CC)

Scenes from Goethe’s Faust

Christian Gerhaher – Faust/Pater Seraphicus/Dr Marianus
Christiane Karg – Gretchen/Una Poenitentium
Olivia Vermeulen – Noth/Mulier Samaritana/Mater Gloriosa
Alastair Miles – Mephistopheles/Böser Geist
Andrew Staples – Ariel/Pater Ecstaticus/Angel
Tara Erraught – Mangel/Maria Aegyptiaca
Lucy Crowe – soprano
Matthew Rose -bass 

Here was a rare opportunity to hear Schumann’s extended setting of scenes from Faust. The work had a difficult gestation, interrupted by the dark spectre of depression; the Overture was the last part to be completed, shortly before the composer was engulfed by mental illness. Schumann’s work (at times, masterwork – perhaps the best term is “flawed outpouring of genius”) concentrates on psychological states more than overt drama; an opposite-pole take to that of Berlioz, for example.

Daniel Harding has rarely impressed me in the past, but on the present occasion his penchant for vibrato-lean, clear textures paid off, with antiphonal violins used to good effect. He kept the music moving, imparting a sense of inevitability to a score that could so easily sound patchwork. The Overture was dramatic and involved, yet it was the easy flow to the opening “Scene in the Garden” that set the tone perfectly for the arrival of the two principal soloists, Christiane Karg (Gretchen) and Christian Gerhaher (Faust). Karg has impressed recently at the Wigmore (Schubert, here) while Gerhaher was recently in form for Rattle’s Debussy Pelléas at the Barbican in January (here); both were to be found together at the Wigmore in fine form for Schumann in February this year (here). They make a powerful pairing, reacting perfectly to both text and to each other. Both of them, along with several other soloists from tonight’s cast, took the same parts on Harding’s recent live recording of Faust (review).

Gerhaher’s Faust was characterized by a sense of the dramatic, his long outpourings an almost perfect melding of orchestral Lied with operatic aria. The section “Des Lebens Pulse schlagen Frisch lebendig” from Part I springs to mind, with its great sense of grandeur, or the almost Sprechgesang “Vier sah ich kommen, drei bur gehn”; yet the purity he found at times for Doctor Marianus was also remarkable. The part demands a huge range of vocal and dramatic qualities, and Gerhaher has them all, right through to the superb grasp he brought to the final Part’s role of Pater Seraphicus. Christiane Karg was more than an equal partner as his Gretchen, and later, in the final part, Una Poenitentium. It is not just the beauty of her voice, it is her total immersion in and sensitivity to the musical line. She moved from the sweet to the glorious (her ecstatic farewell to Faust at the end of the Garden scene) to the simply magnificent in the scene “Gretchen before the Image of the Mater Dolorosa”, her voice absolutely the equal of Schumann’s high-lying lines in the final stanza. Her contribution to the final part of the piece was utterly stunning, the edge to the top of her voice in the passage “Neige, neige” gleaming and not in the slightest uncomfortable.

Old Nick himself and his alter ego “Böser Geist” (Evil Spirit) was taken by the well-loved Alastair Miles, a singer of huge experience. Only intermittently now in the full bloom of voice, Miles made plenty of the dramatic opportunities presented to him without ever quite moving into caricature while exuding plenty of authoritative power (although he came dangerously close to caricature with the rolled “r” as he enunciated “Gretchen” in his very first line as Böser Geist). His sense of presence at the scene of Faust’s death was undeniable; and he found beautiful vocal resonance towards the end of the Second part.

Soprano Lucy Crowe’s contributions were consistently radiant as well as vocally powerful. As Ariel, Andrew Stapes seemed to take a while to get into the part, initially forced in his important solo that opens Part II (the “Sonnenaufgang”: “Die ihr dies Haupt unschwebt im luft’gen Kreise”). He audibly warmed into the evening, however, and by the time he took the role of Pater Ecstaticus he had completely come into his own: the passage “Ewiger Wonnebrand”, with its superb solo cello introduction (almost like the start of an inserted cello concerto – Tim Hugh superb here), was beautifully strong. Matthew Rose’s Pater profundus was resonant and lyrical, an absolute joy from first to last. One could see his eyes were glued to his score, but the audible results implied a deeper knowledge and understanding of his role.

Olivia Vermeulen was powerful and potent in her triple role (Not/Mulier Samaritana/Mater Gloriosa) while Tara Erraught was a fine Mangel/Maria Aegyptiaca. In the ensemble sections, soloists consistently blended perfectly together. The London Symphony Chorus was in fine voice; the Choir of Eltham College passed muster as the “Selige Knabe”, but found certain aspects of Schumann’s writing a challenge (the exposed “Freudig empfangen war”). Stage space was well utilized, with ensembles towards the back of the stage and the principals at front.

A remarkable evening, all in all, and close to the revelatory in terms of Schumann’s piece.

Colin Clarke





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