Schumann's Scenes from Goethe's Faust is one of the most astonishing works of the 19th century. Ostensibly an oratorio, it combines the choral weight of that genre with the dramatic power and grandeur of opera and the intimacy and thought of Lieder. Schumann originally considered a full-scale operatic adaptation of Goethe's titanic play, but ultimately retreated from it, instead presenting extracts largely taken from the second part of the play, which moves away from the more narrative self-focused journey in the first, into symbolic, philosophical musings. The thematic emphasis Schumann draws from this and inserts as the linking thread running through the scenes is redemption. The composition of the work took Schumann a good decade, encompassing many of his bleakest periods of illness and depression, and in many respects, the music reflects this length, with parts sounding clearly more advanced musically than others. It is a work with astonishing influences – one hears not just Beethoven, but also elements of Wagner. It languished for many years and it is only since Britten took it up in the 1970s that it has achieved any real publicity; even now a performance is a rare event.

Christian Gerhaher © Jim Rakete | Sony Classical
Christian Gerhaher
© Jim Rakete | Sony Classical

Daniel Harding is extensively familiar with the score and in 2014 made a recording of the work that has claims to be the most accomplished of the selection available. For this performance under the LSO, he reassembled several of his singers and delivered a nearly transcendent performance. The acclaimed baritone Christian Gerhaher is in so many respects ideally suited to sing Faust; the level of reflection and introspection that he brought to the role was exquisite. His voice was unfogged and clear, and though he frequently sang in almost hushed tone, was perfectly audible and in singing this way, brought an air of both tension and meditation. He was at his best, though, when singing as Dr Marianus; in “Hier is die Aussicht frei”, he was in astonishing voice, singing with a high, almost ethereal baritone that was perfect for the situation. Gerhaher’s extensive work in Lieder showed, bringing a delicacy and attention to the text that gave his poetic ruminations a deeper meaning.

The richness that Alastair Miles has slowly started to lose from his bass has in no way diminished his technique, nor indeed his enthusiasm. As the Evil Spirit, Miles brought a bark and phrasing that can be described as nothing other than malicious, a factor that brought character and drama to the whole work. His projection is still strong and, like Gerhaher, he showed extensive familiarity with the score. As Gretchen/Una Poetium, Christiane Karg was at her best in the first two scenes, conveying warmth and sadness in plush tones, but above all, Gretchen’s childish innocence – she conjured up the pulling of petals remarkably vividly in “Er liebt mich – liebt mich nicht”.

As Ariel, tenor Andrew Staples gave a powerful performance. His entrance “Die ihr dies Haupt umschwebt” was almost rapturously high and drawn out. Careful, languorous phrasing defined his performance and there was an innate choral beauty to his singing that was perfectly in keeping with the character. In his higher register, he has an appealing silver lightness that made me wish Schumann had given Ariel and his other characters, Pater Ecstaticus and Angel, more to sing. Lucy Crowe was in strong voice, giving a technically excellent performance, but I would have liked a little more character in the voice. Her character, Care, is malicious and while Crowe depicted this facially, her voice didn’t quite convey it. Tara Erraught and Olivia Vermeulen were not given any real opportunities to stand out and struggled to make themselves distinctive from where they were positioned, sandwiched between chorus and orchestra. Matthew Rose’s bass was rich, but lacked the inspiration that would have elevated his performance.

Harding clearly adores the score and his understanding of its intricacies showed in the playing of the LSO, evoking both the pastoral and the supernatural with equal colour and intensity. Some lovely playing from harpist Bryn Lewis and some almost biblically fierce brass crowned their performance. The choral forces, comprising the standard LSO Chorus and the Choir of Eltham College were on fine form; the boys’ choir struggled slightly to make itself heard over the orchestra, but was generally reasonable. The moving, almost Wagnerian singing of the combined choral forces in the last few minutes contributed to what was a very moving and thought-provoking evening.