The Spin Doctor Europadisc's Weekly Column
Faust emerges from the shadows
10th November 2021
10th November 2021
Composers ranging from Schubert and Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schumann, Liszt and Mussorgsky, right up to Mahler, Henze and Schnittke, have tackled elements of the Faust legend, in song, in choral and orchestral works. More extensive operatic treatment ranges from Berlioz’s ‘dramatic legend’ La Damnation de Faust (1846) to Gounod’s wildly popular five-act opera Faust (1859, based on Michel Carré’s Faust et Marguerite) and Boito’s rather less successful Mefistofele (1868). Perhaps the best-known 20th-century operatic setting is Ferruccio Busoni’s Doktor Faust, his final opera: unfinished at his death in July 1924, it was finished by his pupil Philipp Jarnach for performance 10 months later in Dresden, while in 1982 the Busoni scholar Anthony Beaumont published a new, more thorough completion which, though it has achieved some notable successes on stage, has yet to appear on disc (a glaring omission which cries out for rectification).
With its heady mixture of moral dilemmas, sensuality and focus on the figure of Faust as archetype of the tormented yet questing individual, the legend, particularly as transmitted by Goethe’s staggeringly ambitious drama, positively invites musical treatment on a grand scale. One hitherto neglected composer who was unable to resist was Havergal Brian (1876-1972): the spirit of Faust hovers over parts of his enormous ‘Gothic’ Symphony (1919-27, first performed in 1961). Some five years before the Gothic’s belated premiere, Brian was working on his five-act opera Faust, to his own German-language libretto, a direct abridgement of Goethe’s text which respects the original versification and syntax while concentrating on those scenes most essential to the underlying conflicts and unfolding drama.
Unperformed apart from a 1979 broadcast of the Prologue, and a more recent recording of the orchestral ‘Night Ride of Faust and Mephistopheles’, Brian’s Faust is finally about to emerge from its long silence. To mark the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death, Martyn Brabbins and the forces of English National Opera have recorded the complete opera on the Dutton label: some two-and-a-quarter hours in Brian’s sensitively executed abridgement, with a cast of ‘only’ a dozen soloists plus organ, chorus and large orchestra. As those familiar with the Prologue or the ‘Night Ride’ will already know, Brian’s Faust music is both inventive and highly evocative, evincing his immersion in late-Romantic and early-20th-century models (particularly Wagner, Elgar and Richard Strauss) as well as an immersion in the great contrapuntal traditions of the Renaissance and Baroque. The result is a combination of expressivity and reflection which ideally suits the seriousness of the subject, without downplaying its inherent drama. The tensions between Faust and Mephistopheles, Faust and Gretchen, and – in the Prologue – God and Mephistopheles are crucial to the work’s message for Brian, as is the remarkable Cathedral scene, where Gretchen is confronted by the Evil Spirit. On the other hand, he cuts such famous set-piece episodes as Auerbach’s Tavern and the Walpurgis Night, thereby avoiding the (from a philosophical point of view superfluous) operatic-ness of Gounod and Boito and bringing Goethe more emphatically into the 20th century.
With a cast led by Peter Hoare (Faust), Alison Cook (Gretchen) and David Soar (Mephistopheles), the new Dutton recording looks set to be an important addition to the discography. Best of all, it is led by Brabbins, who has steadily become on of the composer’s most tenacious and persuasive champions on disc, with recordings of Symphonies 2, 10, 13, 14, 19, 27, 30 plus several other works to his credit on Dutton, plus a highly acclaimed Proms recording of the ‘Gothic’ Symphony on Hyperion (CDA679712). If anyone can make the case for this hitherto neglected Faust, it’s him.
Meanwhile, the website of the Havergal Brian Society provides a welcome source of information, not just on Brian’s life and work in general, but on Faust in particular, providing a complete list of forces and scenes, useful articles by William E Grim and Jürgen Schaarwächter, as well as an online version of the vocal score courtesy of United Music Publishers. With interest in the composer now at levels unknown since his too-brief heyday before the First World War, the time for Faust’s rediscovery is surely ripe. And it adds further substance to the number of ambitious works that have been inspired by a key legend of modern Western civilisation, whose power to fascinate and preoccupy – not least those of a brooding, ‘Faustian’ disposition – remains undiminished.
Havergal Brian Society Faust page: http://www.havergalbrian.org/works/faust.php (with further in-line links)
How to Contextualise
18th January 2022
It is a phrase dreaded by students who have just handed what they hope is a brilliant essay: ‘It needs more context’. After all the effort you’ve put into cramming as much research into as few hours as possible (usually the last three), still they want more. But what context are they looking for: historical, social, political, cultural? Aesthetic, visual, aural, anecdotal, apocryphal? Pity the poor souls, tails between their legs, having to search out a context for all their hard, last-minute work…
The issue of... read more
How to Write it Down
11th January 2022
Next to peeping beneath the propped-up piano lid, one of the most popular interval occupations for concert audiences at smaller venues is taking a peek at the sheet music on the stands. How do musicians make sense of all those squiggly lines? When listening to a broadcast or recording, the listener may be swept along by the sound of the performance: the skill of the performer, the expressiveness of the music, its sweep and trajectory, its ear-grabbing details. In the concert venue itself, however, the presence of printed... read moreread more
How to Dress for a Concert (and the Opera)
5th January 2022
Most people who have been to live classical music events will, at some point or other, have given thought to what to wear. For some, it is one of the main attractions of attending such happenings; for others, an incidental annoyance; for others still, almost a non-issue. On the whole, British audiences are fairly relaxed about what they wear for an evening in the concert hall or at the opera or ballet – unless, that is, it’s not an opera but an Opera (such as Tosca, La Bohème or La Traviata) that is being performed, in which... read moreread more
Looking back on 2021
22nd December 2021
The past twelve months have been another roller coaster for most of us, as normal life (whatever that might mean) has struggled to get going, in a rather stop-start manner, against a background of continued challenges and restrictions, even for those of us lucky to live in regions with effective health and social services. Many who work in the arts have been forced to re-evaluate priorities, with some forced to leave the sector altogether, while others have had their working lives completely upended. Overall, however, the... read moreread more
In praise of... Saint-Saëns
14th December 2021
This week marks the centenary of the death of Camille Saint-Saëns (9 October 1835–16 December 1921), one of the giants of French 19th-century music. A child prodigy, piano and organ virtuoso and polymath (among his passionate interests beside music were the French, Greek and Latin classics, and the natural sciences including astronomy), he was a prolific composer steeped in the Viennese tradition but also a passionate champion of French music both new and old. Renowned for his versatility and natural musical giftedness,... read moreread more