Zum Konzert am 11. Juni 1972 in Aldeburgh


     The Times, London, 13. Juni 1972     

Schumann’s Faust

Aldeburgh Festival


Schumann never heard his Scénes from Faust complete, nor in all probability had most of the rest of us until Sunday afternoon at the Maltings. So all gratitude to Benjamin Britten for this only slightly cut, star-studded revival. This, surely is what a Festival is for.

Goethe’s word entralled Schumann from adolescence to death. Abandoning the idea of an opera, he eventually in 1844 succumbed to the "sublime poetry" of Goethe’s closing scene for quasi-oratorio setting (now known as Schumann’s part three). Rekindled by Goethe centenary performances in 1849, he went on to select earlier scenes associated with Gretchen (part one) and Faust himself nearing death (part two) before eventually adding the overture only a year before his own total breakdown. The change of style between the earlier and later music is remarkable. But after Sunday’s unflagging performance, it will never be quite so easy again to write off the later sections as a product of declining health and powers.

Without doubt the earlier part three flows more easily within the symmetrical phrase-lengths that were the younger Schumann’s natural outlet. At this period, too, his orchestration was infinitely less cluttered. This music has an appealing lyrical freshness and immediacy. Once or twice it is even a little bland. And is the allegro ending of the final Chorus Mysticus just a bit too much of an establishment gesture? In retrospect it is certainly easy to understand why many people found that the music made this more recondite part of the poem intelligible to them for the first time, as Schumann proudly claimed to a friend.

The interesting discovery about the later sections was what living in Dresden alongside Wagner did to Schumann. Here, he deliberately essays a more exploratory, dramatic style, often with continuous as opposed to metrical solo melody. Inspiration grows less steadily: the orchestration (even when slightly modified by Britten) is dangerously sick. But with one advantageous cut in number four and singing and playing of exceptional vividness, the high spots were all-conquering. Even the weaker patches, in their questing uncertainty, in some strange way seemed to emerge on a more contemporary wavelength than some of the more comfortable Schumann.

Warm, bass-boosting Maltings acoustics, coupled with thick scoring, often militated against balance in parts one and two. But Fischer-Dieskau (Faust) and Heather Harper (Gretchen) still managed to convey all the charm of the first temptation scene in the garden. Gretchen before the Mater Dolorosa was also touchingly done. Mr. Fischer-Dieskau was as much inside Faust’s skin as if he had been on the stage, sometimes even sacrificing musical beauty in the interests of truth (in this respect the Wandsworth School Choir emulated him). With Michael Rippon as a devilish Mephistopheles and a quartet of hags sounding more like Valkyries at the ready, he kept us on tenterhooks even throughout danger spots in the Midnight and Death scenes. Benjamin Britten helped to make Faust’s grandiloquent B major vision (after blinding by a wierdly sinister Jennifer Vyvyan) a great climax similarly his moment of death. It was a splendid idea to cut part of number four (Sunrise) in the interest of Aeriel (a mellifluous Peter Pears) and the ingratiating orchestral part (ECO) here.

Cuts in part three involved a bit of stitching from Britten, but were mostly in a good cause, and did not too noticeably disrupt this section’s continuity. Soloists and chorus alike (Aldeburgh Festival Singers) cleverly changed their tone and style into something much less vigorous, much more evocative of anchorites, penitents, blessed boys and angels. Mr. Britten gave us the original Chorus Mysticus (Schumann is said to have preferred his revised ending). An even slower, softer start might have made it more mystical. But climaxes were roof-raising.

Joan Chissell

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