Gedda and Baker Are Exquisite!
Christopher Forbes | Brooklyn,, NY | 05/27/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Berlioz was the epitome of the Romantic musical dramatist. Through his life he was taken with dramatic subjects, from Goethe to Shakespeare to Virgil, literature was a prime medium for the composer. And as an inveterate experimenter, Berlioz' literary bent would shine in the most unusual ways formally. The Damnation of Faust is an example of one of Berlioz' most imaginative and lyrical scores. Berlioz set parts of the Goethe masterwork early in his career as Eight Scenes from Faust, his Opus 1. Though he withdrew the work quickly, much of the music made it into the later Faust, along with several other stand alone works like the Rakoczy March. The work sounds like an opera, but Berlioz' sense of scene is too fantastic for the stage. As a result the work is described as a dramatic legend. Most of the drama of the piece is shifted from the stage to the orchestra. In this way, Berlioz anticipates the development of Wagnerian music drama, and shows much of the keen psychological insight of the later German master. Berlioz' take on the Goethe play is not at all orthodox. Though the basic outlines of Faust Part 1 can be seen...the world-weary renunciation of life by Faust, the temptation and pact, the student scenes, the love affair with Marguerite and her final death, much is fiddled with as well. The opening of the work takes place on the "plains of Hungary"...inserted in the work are scenes near the Elbe complete with magic effects...a beautiful Willow the Wisp dance in Marguerite's apartment...and the final journey of Faust to Hell. This of course is Berlioz' greatest departure from Goethe, but it makes for thrilling music and plays to the composers great orchestral strengths. This work is soaring and lyrical, perhaps the composer's most melodic score. From Faust's opening aria greeting spring, though the lovely duets with Faust and Marguerite, to the haunting music of Marguerite abandoned, this is a work brimming with melody. The orchestration is also stunning, as one would expect from Berlioz. The composer is masterly, picking just the right instrument or combination of instruments for each scene. The one place that does seem to get past him is the final scene in Hell. While the ride to Damnation is hair-raising, the chorus of the demons and damned souls is kind of silly...almost Italian band music, and very unworthy of such a great master. As a result, the end looses just a bit of it's punch. But this is nitpicky! So much of the score before this moment is wonderful that to complain about this is to miss the point.This is not the Faust I grew up with. My first and favorite Faust will always be the Colin Davis recording with Gedda and Veasey. It has the advantage of little competition at the time and the excitement of new discovery. However, this is a wonderful reading, vocally perhaps even better than the Davis recording. Gedda is absolutely marvelous. What a tenor he was...able to sing Italian, German, French and even English opera with force and conviction. And Dame Janet Baker is perfect as Maguerite. She strikes the exact tone of vulnerability needed to make the character sympathetic without descending into bathos. Gabriel Baquier makes a convincing Mephistopheles and is particularly entertaining in his comic songs. The orchestra is conducted by a second tier Berliozian, Georges Pretre, but sounds wonderful. The filler on the disc is Berlioz' early Mor De Cleopatre, a work that the composer wrote in an unsuccessful attempt to win the Prix de Rome. The work was judged to have "dangerous tendencies". Seen in hindsight it's hard to understand why that would be the case. This is definitely second rate Berlioz...the product of a student trying to conform to the academic establishment of the time, though the melodic lines show hints of the genius to come. It's an interesting listen, but I might wish for other works to fill out and balance the wonderful Faust. One other small complaint about this CD. EMI's Double Forte series is a terrific bargain, but they really do skimp on the liner notes. There is a short synopsis of the storyline, and a little information on the history of the composition, but nothing too detailed. And there is no libretto included at all. This is a small complaint, but a complaint nevertheless."
A bargain set worthy for its outstanding singers and viscera
Santa Fe Listener | Santa Fe, NM USA | 07/12/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"I was ready to give this EMI budget two-fre of Berlioz's Damnation de Fuast three stars, strictly on my memory of Georges Pretre's bald-faced, sometimes brash conducting. But once I begn listening again, a lot caught my ear. It's always a god sign when Faust's treacherous opening solo is well sung, and Nicolai Gedda is first-rate, singing with apparent ease and lovely style. Then there's the very French orchestra and chorus. They add a particular flavor that even the greatest orchestras outside France can't match--Berlioz sounds at home in Paris, as Johann Stauss does in Vienna.
The mezzo doesn't have a large part, but I originally bought this recording for Janet Baker, who is intense and superb in every way--as she is in the filler, her classic recording of La Mort de Cleopatra (which can be had in several reissues; I'd find oe with the latest remastering since the sonics here are a bit thin and edgy). By the time I got to Gabriel Bacquier's exciting and sinuous Mephistopheles, a really nasty, confident devil, I was hooked.
It's only because of the staggeringly strong competition from Myung-Whun Chung and Igor Markevitch, both brilliantly performed in the Gallic vein, along with estimable version from Colin Davis and Charles Munch, that I can't quite put this set in top place. It certainly has a great deal of drama going for it, however, and the wide-raning sonics are thrilling."