Scenes from Goethe's Faust (Britten)

Fischer-­Dieskau, Harwood, Shirley-Quirk, Pears; ECO/Britten; Decca



Much of Schumann is overtly autobiographical; these Scenes are surely written in the Faust persona. The composer's own drama has recently been produced from the Leipzig archives in the Tagebücher 1827-38, which tell the same story. In his wild youth he had by his own act consigned to perdition his body and brain, if not his soul. There is also evidence that he fathered an unwanted child on a working girl. He was redeemed on earth by pure love and good works; at the last, he longed for spiritual salvation (a pitiful scrawl in the asylum - reads “Robert Schumann, Ehrenmitglied des Himmels” - honorary member of Heaven).

    It will hardly be fortuitous that these themes throng through the comparatively few lines from Faust that Schumann chose to set. His inspiration is heavily invested in Goethe's words. But their respective shares fluctuate, yielding now richness, now poverty. Thus Goethe can safely rely for his sublimest effects on the sonorous overtones of simple (often biblical) language. When for example the transfigured glory of Faust's form is described in the vocabulary of the first form –“Jetzt ist er schön und gross/Von heil'gem Leben” - the everyday words put on haloes and rise to the occasion. But the corresponding musical idiom wears less well. Earnest four-part harmony suggests not so much salvation as the Salvation Army. Of course that may be instrumental in leading the way; but Schumann certainly needs great faith as well as wise generalship if his Faust is to attain the desired heights.

    I can hardly imagine these requirements or the Schumann-lover being better satisfied or fulfilled than by the present performance. Singing, playing and direction are alike expressive and admirable. So is the sense of shared endeavour and common purpose which has audibly been instilled into the music and is distilled therefrom. When several people act together in concert in the same spirit, as Faust himself points out, good works can be so well performed that they achieve greatness. That might serve as a motto for the set as a whole.

    Fischer-Dieskau (Faust, Dr Marianus) is in sumptuous voice; and his direct diction invokes some finely Goethean effects; for example the passage of “Die Himmelskönigin” [listen!] etc has a highly moving radiance. Elizabeth Harwood as Gretchen is always effective, often affecting. Peter Pears as Ariel and Pater Seraphicus impressively conveys an indwelling quality of mature wisdom which is now an integral part of the voice and is wholly in character with the music. John Shirley-Quirk sings com­pellingly, though his portrayal of Mephistopheles and the Böser Geist is perhaps too good in every sense to be entirely convincing as a personification of incarnate evil. Much the same applies to the young Lemures; the limbs of Satan should surely seem withered or artificial, not healthy and natural.

    Benjamin Britten's conducting has among many other shining virtues the intense flexibility that Schumann's orchestral music (with or without voices) so desperately demands and so rarely receives. Some of the readings could perplex the literal-minded. For example it may take a conscious effort of adjustment to concede that by “Allegretto” Schumann might have meant the very brisk tempo favoured at “Jene Rosen” etc, or that the following “Etwas langsamer” could signify “a great deal slower”. But his tempos had better be debatable and alive than literal and dead; and alive is certainly what this performance is, from first to last. As a result, everyone can now perceive that Schumann's Faust too has an immortal part (though whether it is Part I, II or III may still be arguable).

    This is not the first time that Britten and Pears have worked together in restoring the pristine colours to a Schumann masterpiece; remember their Dichterliebe. Furthermore, their Schubert and Wolf song recitals (the latter unfortunately un­recorded) include some of the best lieder performances ever heard; and Schubert and Wolf operas include some of the best music never heard. So who knows what may yet be brewing at The Maltings? Meanwhile all Schumann-lovers and most music-lovers of whatever persuasion will wish to acquire this set. No pains have been spared to make it the best that money can buy; even the booklet is a paragon its kind. Further, it will be an investment; purchasers and purchase alike will be sure to appreciate, to the full. This is already a historic recording.      


The Musical Times, May 1974 (p. 395) © the estate of eric sams