Sunday, August 22, 2010

Schumann's treatment of Faust not the most impressive

Goethe’s Faust and the whole Faust story has been the inspiration of some of the most heaven storming Romantic music ever written. Gounod’s treatment, with the organ, is striking enough at the end; but my favorite is Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele, which I saw at the Washington Opera at the Kennedy Center in February 1996. The stunning (E Major) angelic chorus (with its “staircase theme”) occurs twice, once in the prologue and again as the epilogue, where “Satan whistles” just before the final massive choral triads. Samuel Ramey made a sensation of the Chorus of Warlocks and Witches from Act II, scene II), probably the most popular scene for many viewers (rather like Berlioz’s “March to the Scaffold”). Here’ s an old review

I was working on my first book at the time and the opera was quite an emotional stimulant.

Concert music has some of the best-known treatments of the Faust theme: namely, Franz Liszt’s Faust Symphony, with its male chorus use in the finale (usually a gay men’s chorus), joining the organ and orchestra for a truly apocalyptic close crashing down in C Major. Georg Solti, of the Chicago Symphony, has always pointed out that the second movement works only when played with absolute legato, just as on a piano. Then Mahler would treat us to the story not in the Second Symphony (the “Resurrection”) but the Eighth, the Symphony of a Thousand, which stays in E-flat and avoids progressive tonality, with a rousing chorus at the end, singing about the “eternal feminine” (the Rosenfels polarities) and a final orchestral close that overreaches itself.

So recently I rented a Netflix DVD of Robert Schumann’s treatment, an oratorio called “Scenes from Goethe’s Faust”, recorded in Germany in 1999 at the Amandus Church (in Freiberg, according to Google, link http://www.panoramio.com/photo/690252 ), with the Stuttgart Philharmonic conducted by Frieder Bernius. The work was composed from 1844 to 1853, making the completed composition rather late in Schumann’s short life, troubled by manic-depression.

The D Minor overture is spunky, with a three note principle motive (typical Schumann) and a chromatic second them. There is an introduction, and a modified Sonata form with a truncated development and a long, somewhat mechanical D Major coda. But the writing is more mannered than Schumann’s best music (like the end of the Second Symphony). There are many choruses and arias, but the 100 minute work comes to a curious, even ambivalent and quiet close, in G, that seems disappointing to me, compared to most of Schumann’s music.

Here's a YouTube excerpt from the Schumann sung by The Tölzer Knabenchor.

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