Reviews for IPCD 1017-3
Busoni: DOKTOR FAUST - ARLECCHINO
Doktor Faust. • Adrian Boult, cond; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Faust); Richard Lewis (Mephistopheles); Ian Wallace (Wagner); Heather Harper (Duchess of Parma); John Cameron (Duke of Parma); Ambrosian Singers; Royal Acad of Music Ch; London PO
Arlecchino • John Pritchard, cond; Kurt Gester (Arlecchino); Elaine Malbin (Colombina); Ian Wallace (Ser Matteo); Geraint Evans (Abbate Cospicuo); Fritz Ollendorf (Doctor Bombasto); Murray Dickie (Leandro); Glyndebourne Fest.
Live: London 11/13/1959, Glyndebourne 06/24/1954; Studio 07/1954
BUSONI Comedy Overture (Boult, London PO, Live: date unknown); Berceuse Élégiaque; Rondo Arlecchinesco (Arturo Toscanini, NBC SO, Live: 12/10/1949)
IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES IPCD 1017-3 (3 CDs: 205:41)
MUSIC WEB INTERNATIONAL
Nearly 75 minutes of this recording of Doktor Faust were released on a single disc by LPO Live. John Quinn's review of that disc drew attention to the omissions that this entailed, and pointed out that prospective purchasers should approach it with caution. Those who accordingly waited for a fuller version are now rewarded with this issue of what would seem to be the whole opera as performed in 1959. There are nearly 50 minutes more music. Admittedly there are still large cuts to the music but nothing like the 81 pages of vocal score apparently missing from the earlier issue.
"Sir Adrian Boult's championing of complex and important works with which his name may not be obviously associated is worth more attention. He conducted the British premieres of Wozzeck, Mahler's Third Symphony and Roy Harris's Third Symphony as well as an enormous number of British works. He first conducted Doktor Faust in a concert performance in 1937 with Dennis Noble and Parry Jones. The present performance was similarly in concert form and had the advantage of a cast that is comparable in quality with any assembled later. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau had already sung the work in the opera house and was later to record it again, in a less truncated form, for DG. His performance rightly dominates the opera and shows a complete understanding of the complexities of the character. Richard Lewis was at times clearly taxed by his role, but his performance is still worth hearing for his usual clarity of tone and immaculate diction. It is good to be reminded of his commitment to complex modern scores - he sang in the premieres of The Midsummer Marriage and King Priam as well as the British premiere of Moses and Aaron (as it was in English). Heather Harper sings with great beauty of tone as the Duchess of Parma. The many minor roles are filled with variable success but overall this is a very satisfactory cast. The chorus may sound desperate at times, as does less frequently the orchestra, but there is the real excitement of a live performance here in which the music is being allowed to develop its own fascinating logic. It would be idle to suggest that this is a performance on a level with later studio versions but it does have real virtues of its own, and would be a very useful supplement to any of those.
Arlecchino is a kind of commentary on the idea of a comic opera, rather than a comic opera in itself. There are echoes of Richard Strauss, (late) Verdi and Mozart and yet the whole remains entirely individual. It is a delightfully subtle score, short but full of invention. It is perhaps unsurprising that it appears seldom in the opera house, but makes a delightful experience on disc, although for full enjoyment you need to download the libretto and translation. Although the performance heard here starts and ends with the typical BBC announcement of the 1950s taken from a broadcast from Glyndebourne, what is actually heard between them is the EMI studio recording made about a month later. According to Richard Caniell's very full and interesting notes it was originally intended to issue the broadcast performance but he later felt that to have been inferior to the studio version. I do not know to what extent that may be the case but certainly what we have here is a performance that musically and dramatically could hardly be beaten. Given its age the recording quality is excellent, enabling the complexity of the work to be fully appreciated.
The three orchestral works are amongst the composer's more frequently played pieces. The Comedy Overture is the epitome of neo-classicism (of Wolf-Ferrari's or Richard Strauss's style rather than that of Stravinsky) and is always worth hearing in such a spry performance despite sound that is only just acceptable. The other two items, recorded at a live concert, apparently suffered from very poor sound as originally transmitted. What we hear here is however at the very least adequate to appreciate what were obviously idiomatic and spirited performances. The start and finish of the Rondo Arlecchinesco are replaced here from an earlier performance to remove defects in the 1949 version. This is done imperceptibly and the overall results ensure that the orchestral works are more than mere fillers.
This is an issue which should appeal to all enthusiasts for the composer's music. I am not sure that it would be a better choice for anyone unfamiliar with the music than more recent, better recorded and less cut versions, but the riches of performance and of performance history found here are of immense value in themselves and make this an important and highly desirable set.
Busoni: DOKTOR FAUST - ARLECCHINO
James A. Altena
May /June 2012
The single CD covered above by Ronald E. Grames was briefly and dismissively reviewed by Adrian Corleonis in Fanfare 35:3. It was also sent to me for review; originally I intended to give it a considerably more positive recommendation, while still considering it to be of narrow interest to admirers of Dietrich-Fischer Dieskau and Adrian Boult. However, that plan was radically altered by the arrival several weeks later of the three-CD set in this review’s headnote, and thereby hangs a tale.
In his review of the LPO disc, Corleonis wrote, “Fischer-Dieskau was in his sanguinary prime in 1959, exhibiting the histrionic flair and occasional carelessness he brought to the commercial recording of Doktor Faust with Ferdinand Leitner a decade later. Richard Lewis is a whining Mephistopheles and audibly taxed by the part. Boult’s direction, heard against Leitner’s divinatory way with the score, is haphazard, though he offers a fine reading of the Sarabande. The compelling reason to acquire this is Heather Harper’s Duchess. The part is seldom assigned to a first-rate singer, but here it is, and Harper makes the most of it.” I agree with him about Harper, agree with him in part about Fischer-Dieskau, and vigorously dissent from the rest.
To take the conducting first: While his studio discography is dominated by English repertoire—Elgar, Holst, and Vaughan Williams in particular—Boult in fact had an extremely broad repertoire. He was for many years responsible for BBC Symphony broadcast performances of 20th-century repertoire, in which he championed works by Stravinsky, Bartók, Berg, Hindemith, and figures of similar stature. It was Boult who gave the British premiere of Faust in a 1937 Queens’ Hall performance, with Dennis Noble and Parry Jones in the principal roles. While he doubtless consulted with Fischer-Dieskau in preparing the current performance, he scarcely needed the baritone’s guidance to determine which abridgements to make in the score to conform it to a two-hour broadcast time slot. (With announcements it in fact runs to about 125 minutes.) More to the point, banish any thoughts here of Sir Adrian as a staid British patrician. While Ferdinand Leitner in the 1970 DG studio recording with Fischer-Dieskau is solid but somewhat cautious, Boult leads a performance that bristles and crackles with energy and tension, while moving seamlessly from episode to episode with masterfully gauged choices of tempi, pointed rhythmic verve, and superb balance between various choirs of the orchestra and vocal forces. Even the recent digital set on Erato led by Kent Nagano, for all its advantages in being able to bring out more instrumental detail due to superior recording technology, seems relatively slack by comparison.
Second, there is Fischer-Dieskau as the Faust of one’s dreams (admittedly rather disturbing ones, given the subject matter). That he is in his sanguinary prime and demonstrates histrionic flair is certainly true; but of occasional carelessness, as distinct from normal interpretive license, I find no trace. I personally have preferred to hear this great artist in the realm of Lieder; with few exceptions (notably his unimpeachably noble portrayals of Wolfram in Tannhäuser and Kurnewal in Tristan) his assumptions of operatic roles have struck me as overly studied and cerebral. Not so here; this performance is nothing short of titanic, seething with volcanic vocal power and passionate commitment that fully scales the heights and depths of Faust’s rise and fall. By comparison, his studio recording with Leitner is more temperate, even a bit tepid, as every I and T is conscientiously dotted and crossed.
Third, there is Richard Lewis as a magnificent Mephistopheles. Contrary to Corleonis, there is nothing whiny about his ringing tenor at all, as can be ascertained from any of his many studio recordings. He is clearly superior to William Cochrane in the DG recording under Leitner, who has an instability in his top register that shortly thereafter turned into a full-fledged wobble when Cochrane ill-advisedly turned to Heldentenor roles. Lewis initially does have some stress in his top notes, but once he gets warmed up (which he does rather quickly) that too disappears. In addition, he matches Fischer-Dieskau at every step in both the depth and fervor of his characterization. This is far and away the best Mephistopheles on disc.
Fourth, there is Heather Harper and the rest of the supporting cast. Harper is easily the best Duchess of Parma available, though in her case the competition on compact disc (Hildegard Hillebrecht on DG, Eva Jenis on Erato) is mediocre to poor. Unlike the other cast members her German is somewhat indistinct (it would become quite good later on), but the high tessitura holds no terrors for her and does not diminish her essential sweetness of tone. Equally deserving of mention are John Cameron and Ian Wallace, who perform their small but crucial supporting roles with a distinction that again surpasses their commercially recorded rivals, and the London Philharmonic Choir, which does itself proud at every turn.
Of course, there is a catch to this cornucopia of vocal and orchestral riches—the cuts that Boult had to impose on the score, stripping it of about 20 minutes of music. The most important ones—there also are a few other minor ones—are as follows:
The orchestral prelude to the First Prologue;
In the Second Prologue, from after “Der Zweite! Wer bist du?” (Faust) up to “Schaue hier, Megaros” (chorus);
The Intermezzo and Chapel Scene between the Second Prologue and First Tableau;
The opening of the Second Tableau, up to “Prosit, Prosit!” (chorus);
In the Second Tableau, part of Faust’s monolog, from “Dich zu üben” up to “Tritt hervor!”;
In the Final Tableau, multiple cuts in Faust’s concluding monolog, from “Hilf, Sehnsucht” through “Dich ruf’ ich an zu höchsten Tun,” again from “Es schreite vor der erdeingebissenen Würzel” through “Deines werdenden Seins,” and again from “Und du zeuge fort” through “Den letzten Geschlechten.”
Of these cuts, the most damaging are the ones in the Second Prologue, the Intermezzo and Chapel Scene, and in Faust’s concluding monolog, which do serious damage to both the coherence of the plot and to Busoni’s metaphysical symbolism. (Given that the chapel scene with the armed soldier was cut, why wasn’t the soldier’s return omitted from the Final Tableau?) By way of small compensation, some short passages that were cut in the Leitner recording are added back here—a few lines before the entry of the Sixth Voice in the Second Prologue, a couplet exchanged between Mephistopheles and the Duke of Parma at the end of the First Tableau, and restoration of part of the song of Mephistopheles in the Second Tableau.
Despite these disfigurations, this is now arguably the preferred recording of this opera, though the Leitner version is also still essential. The Nagano recording on Erato claims attention for two reasons: the new completion of the final scene by Busoni scholar Antony Beaumont, which follows a page of directions Busoni left but was not uncovered before Busoni’s pupil Philip Jarnach finished the score for the 1925 premiere; and the recitation of the spoken prolog and epilog by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Unfortunately those points are far outweighed by the inadequacies of Nagano’s soloists, from the hollow-voiced, mousey Dietrich Henschel (Faust) and Eva Jenis (Duchess of Parma) to the grating, truly whiny Mephistopheles of Kim Begley. That leaves the DVD version from the Zurich Opera with Thomas Hampson and Gregory Kunde, conducted by Philippe Jordan; while vocally more competitive, it too suffers from numerous cuts, and one has to tolerate a thoroughly nonsensical staging that is a typical instance of the terrors of Regietheater (though I was still most grateful to see the version of it brought to the Met in New York in 2001).
As bonus tracks on the second disc, there are performances of three Busoni rarities—the Comedy Overture by Boult and the London Philharmonic, and the Berceuse Élégiaque and Rondo Arlecchinesco by Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony. All three are done superbly, and in fine remasterings that in the latter two pieces greatly mitigate the notoriously dry Studio 8-H acoustic. The date of the Boult performance is unknown; the booklet originally pegged it to 1952, but that is retracted on an enclosed errata slip that also corrects an erroneous track timing for it.
The third disc in this set is a hybrid creation. Originally it was planned to include a June 24, 1954, live performance of Busoni’s one-act comic opera Arlecchino. However, upon listening to it, producer Richard Caniell decided that the EMI studio recording made with the same forces immediately afterward was so superior in every way that he issued that instead, and placed the original broadcast commentary from the live performance before and after it. Given that EMI itself has previously released this performance (in a two-CD set with The Barber of Baghdad of Peter Cornelius, currently in print as an ArkivMusic reissue), I wish they had released the live performance instead, especially as it included 40 bars of music cut from the studio recording in order to fit that onto a single LP. (And why was this passage simply not spliced into this issue instead?) Though only Geraint Evans and Ian Wallace are immediately recognizable names today, the entire cast sings superbly, and soprano Elaine Malbin steals the show as Colombina—she’s absolutely terrific, with a first-class voice, technique, and temperament—and it’s a shame that she didn’t have the major recording career she deserved before retiring early upon the birth of her first daughter.
The accompanying booklet contains detailed essays on and plot synopses for both operas, notes on the performers, and a further note on the recordings. This set is definitely a finalist for my 2012 Want List. It is urgently recommended as an imperative addition to any collection of 20th-century music, as well as to fans of Fischer-Dieskau, Lewis, Harper, and Boult.
Busoni: DOKTOR FAUST - ARLECCHINO
May /June 2012
Having made it to the Met in 2001, Doktor Faust may be assumed to be no longer neglected or unknown, though it remains, as Busoni’s biographer E. J. Dent noted, a work, like Les Troyens, to be revived “at rare and solemn intervals.” A splendid Lyon Opera production, led by Kent Nagano, gave the unfinished opera note-complete, including both the Jarnach and Beaumont endings, with none other than retired Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau reciting Busoni’s verse prolog and epilog, while his protégé, Dietrich Henschel, took the title role (Erato 3984-25501-2, Fanfare 23:5). That album soon went out of print domestically but is still available from French or German Amazon. For those fascinated by Doktor Faust it is absolutely indispensable.
Fischer-Dieskau led the revival of Doktor Faust in the early 1950s. In an interview with Show magazine (January 1964, “In the Name of Jean-Jacques!”), Stravinsky answers the poser “But what are the masterpieces of contemporary opera?” by leading off with “Busoni’s Arlecchino and Doktor Faust—with Fischer-Dieskau a few years ago in Berlin, one of the major theatrical experiences of my life.” The baritone’s 1970 recording with Ferdinand Leitner and the Bavarian Radio Orchestra (reissued on CDs in 1989, Deutsche Grammophon 427 413-2, Fanfare 13:3), though disfigured by small cuts amounting to about an eighth of the score, is vibrant, commanding, compelling. But with hindsight afforded by the present issue Fischer-Dieskau’s later take has, here and there, become reflex. This BBC broadcast from Royal Festival Hall catches the beauty of it hot, so to speak, allowing us to hear a performance close to that which made such a powerful impression on the often acidulously—and hilariously—critical Stravinsky. Here is Fischer-Dieskau in his sanguinary prime, at the top of his bent, vocally lustrous, and wholly identified with the role.
And here, it must be said, we’re hearing the complete broadcast, which was not the case with a recent London Philharmonic Orchestra issue (LPO 0056, Fanfare 35:3) offering but 74 minutes of a work playing uncut more than three hours. In his fatuous liner copy for that album, John Amis wrote, “Had Busoni completed the opera he would no doubt have revised and edited it, probably making some cuts in the long, occasionally sprawling score.. … It is not surprising then that when this concert performance was mooted, Sir Adrian Boult asked baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau for his advice as to what of the music might be excised, yet still, of course, leaving the essential, major parts intact.” Hearing this putative butchery, I lost all respect for everyone involved. But, as the present issue reveals, Amis’s assertion is a slanderous misrepresentation. Following in score, Sir Adrian’s cuts range from a few bars to a few pages, but done with consummate tact enabling the opera’s dramatic arch to stand free. Both albums omit the opening symphonia and present the First Prologue (three ghostly students from Cracow present Faust with a book of magical spells) intact, but the LPO issue cuts from the Second Prologue the orchestral introduction, the summoning of the devils, and the trial by speed—that is, a series of Busoni’s most stunning coups de théâtre—where Sir Adrian gives us those oddments, abridging the Prologue from the appearance of Gravis, the first devil, to segue with Faust’s despairing monolog and the sudden appearance of Mephistopheles, and going to the end, albeit with a number of small trimmings. One may dispute some of the decisions. Faust’s demand—“Give me genius, give me also its suffering”—should have been given in its entirety as it is central to what is Faustian about Busoni’s Faust. But looking in on the impossible task of rendering a cogent conspectus of the score in two hours, one marvels at what Boult managed to include. Similarly, in the great central Parmesan scene, LPO begins with the Duchess’s seduction and runs to the end, where Immortal Performances reveals that—again with numerous trimmings large and small—Sir Adrian presented this central scene from beginning to end, including much of the Parmesan festivities, thus giving us its action, Handlung, dramatic trajectory, instead of a bleeding chunk. Included as well are passages omitted in the Leitner-led commercial recording. Reviewing the LPO issue, I rated Boult’s direction “haphazard” and contrasted it unfavorably with Leitner’s. Heard at length, however, Sir Adrian’s way with the score is gripping and divinatory. His account of the quintessential Sarabande is revelatory in ways that leave other readings seeming clueless, deadpan. Richard Lewis is audibly taxed by Mephistopheles’s high tessitura, but does not lack, nevertheless, for sarcastic menace. And, as noted in the LPO review, Heather Harper’s Duchess is the most lyrically passionate on discs, LP or CD.
But continuity and completeness have been achieved at some cost. As Richard Caniell’s “Recording Notes” explain, “The recording of Doktor Faust derives in part from BBC Radio transcriptions … from a partial (private) recording of the broadcast and from a sonically inferior source used to patch holes in the otherwise good-sounding transfer.” If occasionally congested, the tubby/shrill mono is detailed, with voices stridently prominent. The patches are raspy and pocked, that at the conclusion of the Second Prologue—the Easter chorus, one of Busoni’s finest inspirations (despite what it may owe to Parsifal)—is especially regrettable. Far more distracting are the occasional noises off and the plague-stricken audience. Collectors have brooked much worse for fewer shining moments; overall, the sound is serviceable or better.
Regarding the bonus selections, caught in bass-heavy sound, a Boult/LPO account of Busoni’s early, Mendelssohnian Comedy Overture in a spiffy spirited reading affords pleasure. Busoni esteemed Toscanini “The most intelligent musician I know,” and Toscanini returned the compliment after Busoni’s death in 1924 by frequent programming in tandem of his Berceuse élégiaque and Rondò arlecchinesco, hence these performances are of the greatest interest. Unfortunately, the 1949 masters have not weathered the years well, and hiss is augmented by occasional crackle. Even so, Toscanini’s way with these pieces evinces crackle of another sort, a manic edge, after which all other—even very sensitive, very spirited—performances seem tentative. “I have endeavored to improve the rather clogged sonics and have added a touch of reverberation to the very dry acoustic. In addition, Ben Grauer spoke over the opening measures of the Rondo. This beginning has been replaced from the Toscanini concert of 20 January 1946. And because of an irremediable defect in the closing measures, the tenor who sings the la la las is Andrew McKinley, also from the 1946 concert.” A thing of shreds and patches … and high artistry, though even Toscanini couldn’t coax McKinley to that tone of smartass insouciance Busoni intended and which most tenors render as an exercise, recalling a proper Lieder singer warming up.
Arlecchino is Busoni at his most rapid, allusive, and sarcastic, qualities requiring a surefire performance to put over. By a curious chance, the first of its few recordings has remained its finest, that is, its most sharply etched and scintillant. Caniell writes, “the EMI recording team and producers of the 1954 recording … had to remove 40 bars of music in order to fit the recording on an LP. (In those days two sides could only fit up to 50 minutes of music.) The edit was made in the duet between Columbina and Leandro consisting of a repetition of phrases they sing together and a very few orchestral phrases later on, but the excisions are very small and what’s lost is utterly insignificant.” Following in score, however, one finds many small cuts—a few bars here, a couple of pages there—including a number of lines lifted from Arlecchino’s speaking part. In the aggregate, the impact is anything but “utterly insignificant,” as one will note when turning to the note- and word-complete Nagano-led Lyon Opera performance (Virgin 7 59313 2 7, Fanfare 17:4)—a double bill with Busoni’s Turandot, available as an import—in which Nagano and Ernst Theo Richter, as Arlecchino, strike a nice balance between hectoring brilliance and intelligibility as the compressions of the Glyndebourne performance open and the work breathes, the characters acquire unsuspected resonance, and the musical texture a more welcoming mien as Busoni’s occasional miniature developments offset the near-cryptic Glyndebourne spin. There’s no denying that the Glyndebourne performance is permanently valuable and sparkles with a luster time has not dimmed—and Nagano’s outstanding forces do not quite match—but Caniell’s decision to record from a clean copy of the ancient LP (“The only change I made in the recoding was to give the sound more float so as to dissolve any sense of endiscment”) when EMI’s marginally superior CD transfer, with libretto, is still available (coupled with the classic Leinsdorf/Schwarzkopf/Gedda performance of Peter Cornelius’s Barber of Baghdad, EMI 65284) is truly puzzling. Caniell’s transfer is, nevertheless, well done, a labor of love, in fact, and Arlecchino, which Busoni called his “confessions,” is Doktor Faust’s appropriate complement. From a broadcast performance of Arlecchinino, Caniell has prefaced and ended the disc recording with Ben Grauer announcing credits, a bit of nostalgia for those of a certain age.
As the years pile on and the era of these performances recedes, these sounding survivals take on the aura of old gold. For Busoni mavens and Fischer-Dieskau fans this is de rigueur. It’s also a primary document of Sir Adrian’s woefully underrepresented career as a champion of modernism. As Caniell notes in his richly informed, admiring liner essay, “Boult conducted the British premiere of [Doktor Faust] in 1937 … [and] was therefore thoroughly familiar with the score’s unique qualities,” which he brings out tellingly. As major recording firms are doing, Immortal Performances has made the librettos available online while providing detailed synopses in their booklet (including, for Doktor Faust, scenes omitted from the recording). The discs are extensively cued. For the skimming eye, not merely enthusiastically recommended but urged upon you.