John Storgårds leads a fine account of Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust in Berlin

GermanyGermany Schumann, Szenen aus Goethes Faust, WoO3: Soloists, RIAS Chamber Choir (chorus director: Gregor Meyer), Children’s Choir of the Georg-Friedrich-Händel-Gymnasium, Berlin (chorus directors: Jan Olberg and Vera Zweiniger). Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra / John Storgårds (conductor), Philharmonie, Berlin, 16.2.2020. (MB)

Faust, Pater Seraphicus, Doctor Marianus – Markus Eiche
Gretchen, Una Poenitentium, Solo – Christina Gansch
Mephistopheles, Böser Geist, Pater Profundus, Solos – Stephan Klemm
Ariel, Pater Ecstaticus, Solos – Bernhard Berchtold
Sorge, Not, Jüngerer Engel, Magna Peccatrix, Solos – Sophie Klußmann
Mangel, Muller Samaritana, Solos – Stefanie Irányi
Marthe, Schuld, Penitent, Mater Gloriosa, Maria Aegyptiaca, Solos – Katharina Magiera

Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust is a curious work. How would one conceive of it if one did not know Goethe’s ‘original’? Whether we like it or not, such will doubtless be the experience of an increasing number of listeners (relatively speaking, for how many will ever come to it at all?) just as some will come to the St Matthew Passion or Messiah without knowledge of the Gospels. They will make what they will of it, of course, just as all of us will do what we can in similar situations; none of us knows everything, nor should any of us be expected to. But how much is this a meta-work, of which deeper understanding is dependent on a broader knowledge of Goethe? The ‘scenes’ set by Schumann do not always seem the most obvious to form a whole of their own without some further frame of reference. Even with that frame, proportions might also be thought peculiar, especially when – as here – using the second version of the final chorus, which I do not think I had heard before.

Each of the three performances I have heard in the flesh has brought something different to the task of bringing Schumann’s score to life. Schumann did not live to hear the work performed in full, although partial performances were heard for the 1849 Goethe centenary in Weimar, conducted by Liszt; in Leipzig, by Julis Rietz; and in Dresden, by Schumann himself. Much was added thereafter, and it is hard to believe that those three performances were not in themselves very different. It is probably fair to say that this is one of those works that offers more possibilities, some of them at least on the verge of the contradictory, than can be reconciled in a single performance. Daniel Harding, with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, proved the most dramatic in a quasi-operatic sense. There are arguments for various approaches. Notwithstanding the decidedly mixed blessing of a staging from Jürgen Flimm, Daniel Barenboim seemed less concerned to present an opera manqué – there was, to be fair, a good deal of spoken dialogue – and more interested, in general productively so, in presenting something akin to symphonic incidental music. On this occasion, John Storgårds and his Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (RSB) forces seemed, as a far from inviolable rule, especially attuned to the intimacy not only of Schumann’s writing but of his broader conception. Not that this sounded necessarily like Lieder-performance writ a little larger; rather it took its leave from a smaller-scale, German (in the best sense, provincial) oratorio tradition than many of us have since become accustomed to, vocal, choral, and indeed orchestral writing springing, so it seemed, from just such a source. Such domesticity and traditions surrounding it had much that was compelling to tell us about the nature of the work and, indeed, the relationship between Faust and Gretchen.

Darkly Romantic, then, though the Overture may have been, its D minor tonality surely acknowledging predecessors such as Mozart and Beethoven, if not necessarily on so cosmic a scale, it was leavened aptly enough by a ‘feminine’ second group, so as to provide context for much of what would unfold in the first part of the oratorio. There was thus, in the garden scene, bright-eyed sincerity to Christina Gansch’s Gretchen, readily matched by a freshness to lines such as ‘Ja, mein Kind! Lass dieses Blumenwort’ from Markus Eiche’s Faust. It was not clear here – nor, if one thinks about it, throughout – who or what would emerge victorious; such is neither Goethe’s nor Schumann’s true concern. Before the picture of the Mater Dolorosa, Gretchen’s sadness was clear – colouring, for instance, of the word ‘Schmerzensreiche’ – but the sweetness of orchestral playing, strings and woodwind alike, more than hinted at a force in counterpoint. There was undoubted tragic vehemence to the cathedral scene, not least in fine choral singing of the ‘Dies irae’ material, but it struck me as a particular strength of the approach offered by Storgårds and his performers that it told without unduly overwhelming. This is not a music of cheap thrills.

I was especially taken by the affinity with Lohengrin at the sunrise opening of the second part, Bernhard Berchtold’s tenor Ariel a public-facing counterpoint to a more innig, perhaps even more truthful orchestral part. Storgårds’ handling of transitions here, for example between the chorus and Ariel’s response impressed; so too, did the increasing darkness and continuing verbal acuity of Eiche’s performance. Further highlights included a beautifully, even magically sung Sorge from Sophie Klußmann, her third-part angel also possessed of a fine spring in its step; an excellent contribution from the Children’s Choir of the Georg-Friedrich-Händel-Gymnasium; and a heart-rending sense of idealism from Faust in his final confrontation with Mephistopheles.  The third and final part benefited greatly from a subtle yet undeniable feeling of upward movement, as well as Eiche’s turn to Doctor Marianus. As for the Chorus Mysticus in its second version, knowing Mahler’s Eighth Symphony doubtless presents a problem of expectations, but I confess to having found Schumann’s setting a little drawn out here. Schumann preferred it, though, so I should doubtless give it another try.

Mark Berry

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