Hector Berlioz: La Damnation de Faust, opus 24, H. 111
Bryan Hymel (Faust), Karen Cargill (Marguerite), Christopher Purves (Méphistophélès), Gábor Bretz (Brander), Tiffin Children’s Chorus, Tiffin Boys’ and Girls’ Choir, James Day (Tiffin choirs master), Guildhall School Singers, London Symphony Chorus, Simon Halsey (chorus director), London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)
Live recording: Barbican Hall, London, England (September 2017) – 126’08
London Symphony Orchestra # LSO 0809 (SACS) – Booklet in English, French and German (Distributed by PIAS)
For a man who broadly shunned the operatic élite étabile of the times, the likes of Meyerbeer, Auber and Halévy, it comes as no surprise that Hector Berlioz charted his own path of uniquely psychoactive compositions. Here, La Damnation de Faust, a cross-hybridization of oratorio/opera, falls under the acoustically intelligent Barbican Hall. For Berlioz aficionados spellbound by Robert Lepage’s thermally hi-tech 2008 display could easily miss the craftsmanship of music.
La Damnation, originally written as a concert piece, pushes greater importance on this London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) recording since the listener can personalize the experience by bringing forth Berlioz’s hallucinogenic music with effective intimacy. While this légende dramatique has groundings of Goethe’s Faust Part 1, the episodic trimmings are neatly sliced into layers under Sir Simon Rattle’s perspicuous direction: the transmission rests upon an evenly balanced fulcrum and keen determination while flickering between pious religiosity, oleaginous mockery and genuine sincerity.
A natural transition from his 2012 electrifying display in Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, Bryan Hymel’s eponymous character passages between might and delight with an occasional high note being somewhat pressato. Initiated by bass pizzicato followed by solo viola, Karen Cargill’s opening chanson gothique (“The King of Thulé”) brings forth a richly layered mezzo voice and bounteous detail, especially as M. Rattle seizes the piece with the most cherished of tempos. The chanson’s melodic “thought” returns with the duo building to an impressive climax during Part III’s “Finale.”
Christopher Purves’ (a last minute replacement for indisposed Gerald Finley) baritone timbre does more in convincing the listener of a benevolent Méphistophélès rather than administering a full-strength dose of demonism. In the fleeting rôle as Brander, Gábor Bretz has definitive bravado and rancor that stamps a mark of musical sarcasm inside this La Damnation de Faust.
Hector Berlioz’s passages require extremely feathery stands from woodwinds, and the conveyance under Sir Simon Rattle is grandly superb (ref: “Minuet of the Will-O’-the-Wisps” receives top honors!) Of equal importance is the contrasting heft and lightness from the brass. Balance is polished on every level.
One of the highest commendations should be directed to the choral groups, spearheaded under James Day and Simon Halsey. These two masters show just how disciplined they command in terms of appropriate blending and appropriate dynamics. “Softness” and “sensitivity” are the two words that frequently come to mind listening to this release. In particular, “Marguerite’s Apotheosis” is convincingly and amenably soporific...one of the finest this reviewer has experienced.
Sir Simon Rattle realizes Hector Berlioz’s vision in the most extraordinary way. La Damnation de Faust is a stand-alone knock-out.