If you’re not familiar with the source material, it’s difficult to make head or tail of what’s happening during Robert Schumann’s Szenen aus Goethe’s Faust. Striding through the two-part magnum opus with seven-league boots, Schumann picked seven unconnected scenes, leaving large gaps in the plot. In awe of Goethe’s genius, he left the selected texts practically unchanged and, ambitiously and admirably, apart from setting the disastrous love story between Faust and Gretchen, he also included scenes from the more philosophical Faust, Part Two. The resulting oratorio-opera hybrid has zero narrative cohesion but plays out like two hours of glorious highlights from an imaginary operatic cycle encompassing all of Faust. And what inspired highlights they are, as this performance by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Sir John Eliot Gardiner showed.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
© Jan Hordijk

Before the concert commenced, the orchestra observed a minute of silence and then played Valse triste by Jean Sibelius, performed conductorless and without applause, in a touching tribute to Mariss Jansons. Jansons, who passed away on the 30th of November, was chief conductor of the RCO from 2004 to 2015 and this was one of his favourite encore pieces. After the tumultuous Faust overture, the tender but urgent love scene in the garden also dances, unfolding to a waltzing orchestral accompaniment in 12/8 time. Gardiner’s lack of dynamic variety, however, made it dance rather less fluidly than Valse triste. Although he kept the large army of performers aligned at all times, he did not always adapt volume and mood to the singers’ intent. The delicate lyricism of tenor Werner Güra as a benevolent spirit, for example, got lost in the orchestral current. And when baritone Christian Gerhaher, who was extraordinary in the title role, pared down his sound to create intimacy and tension, the orchestra did not always follow suit. Gardiner was more subtle and more in sync with the soloists in the last third of the performance. Still, as fine as the playing was, the real lustre came from the singing.

The top-drawer cast included silky bass Tareq Nazmi and the polish of Ann Hallenberg and Claire Barnett-Jones, representing, respectively, the brighter and deeper hues within the mezzo-soprano spectrum. Bass Kurt Rydl as Mephistopheles cleverly balanced out his now diminished vocal reserves with a forceful declamatory presence. The impish National Kinderkoor as his minions reinforced his satanic authority. Soprano Louise Alder distinguished herself in her mellifluous, eloquent solo as the allegorical figure Distress. Why don't we hear Gretchen’s anguished prayer to Our Lady of Sorrows more often in soprano recitals? Christiane Karg, with her pure, lambent singing, demonstrated how deeply moving it is.

Merged into one synchronised ensemble, the Netherlands Chamber Choir and the Laurens Collegium Rotterdam brought an opulent sheen to Schumann’s magnificent choral writing, from the blood-curdling requiem in the Gothic horror of the cathedral scene to the celestial choruses that redeem Faust’s soul. It always feels like a small miracle to hear a large choir articulate words crisply without sacrificing beauty of sound. “Who e'er aspiring, struggles on, for him there is salvation”, sings the choir of angels at a crucial moment in the finale. Gerhaher, utilising all the registers of his tensile baritone and an astonishing expressive palette, captured both the torment and the rapture of this ceaseless striving. He pierced through the complexity of the metaphysical text with emotional immediacy, making you feel as if you understood it fully. That would be an improbable claim for anyone who isn’t a Goethe scholar, but great artists can reveal to our hearts what our minds cannot grasp.