on 5 October 2014
Berlioz' "Damnation of Faust" is an unequal work, which means that it requires a first-rate performance to hold our attention from start to finish. Sadly, the Colin Davis performance does not achieve this: the sound quality is questionable, and the mind wanders, but this performance by Pretre and the Orchestre de Paris is compelling throughout. Geoffrey Bellamy, in his 2012 review, has made the point that it "sounds French", and he is spot on! Not many previous performances possess that vital Gallic touch. He also makes the point that it is the soloists who will sell this performance: another bulls-eye on Geoffrey's part,.
From the opening, Nicolai Gedda's Faust arrests our immediate attention. The impression I have always felt is that the story has been going on for some time, and we are now allowed to become a part of it as listeners, so it does not actually "start" as such (Berlioz did the same kind of thing in "The Trojans", and Shakespeare likewise in "Cymbeline" for that matter!). A risky beginning to any musical or literary undertaking, but it works in this recording. It is true to say that from here on, we are swept into Berlioz' world straight away.
In addition to Nicolai Gedda, we have the incomparable Janet Baker as Marguerite, Her arias in Part Three (CD 1, tracks 21/22) and in particular in Part Four (CD2 track 6) are masterly. Gabriel Bacquier (Mephiistopheles) also impresses, and relishes his mocking serenade (CD2, Track - "dans la Maison"): Pierre Thau has a fine time as Brander (CD1, Tracks 10 to 12). Other moments to savour are on CD1, Tracks 15 and 16, where Gedda, Bacquier and the Chorus lead us towards one of the work's most well-known episodes: the "Dance of the Sylphs". This is quite captivating, but so is Baker's "Autrefois un roi de Thule" and the following contribution by Bacquier leading us into another such episode: the Minuet of the Will o'-the Wisps (CD1, Tracks 22 to 24). How wonderful to hear two pieces, usually played seperately, in context with the whole. However, I was a little worried about the Hungarian March in Part 1, which got faster and faster towards the end. It finished as more of a Hungarian Gallop.
After Marguerite is committed to prison, Faust and Mephistophilese ride, not to rescue her, but into the Abyss: the ride and the resultant "Pandemonium" sequence are terrific: Berlioz - and indeed Pretre - throw everything into this passage, culminating in the triumph of Mephistopheles. Then, as the Chorus inform us:"Alors, l'enfer se tut" (then Hell was silent), and the redemption of the soul of Marguerite begins. It is quite magical, with "une voix" plus an Angelic Choir, which brings this mighty work to a peaceful close. Romantic Musical Contrivance on Berlioz' part? Perhaps, but only to the cynical and sceptical, and it is a hard soul that will not be moved by these closing bars. We are perhaps accustomed to think of Berlioz as the "enfant terrible" of the Symphonie Fantastique or the "Dies Irae" of the Requiem with its 4 Brass Bands and 16 Timpani, but that is only one side of him: this passage shows he was quite capable of restraint and controlled, moving music.
A pity that, although there is a good analysis in the accompanying programme notes, there is no actual libretto, but you can, of course down-load one if you wish. This is a fabulous CD, and I cannot recommend it too highly - and we must not forget the added bonus of Janet Baker in "La Mort du Cleopatre", this time with the LSO under Sir Alexander Gibson, although I suspect you may want to play this seperately, rather than just continue with the last track of CD2.
Although this recording dates back to 1969, the sound on the CD is clear - more than can be said of some recordings, and thus yet another reason to purchase. "This "Damnation of Faust" is a real experience, which I urge you to indulge in.