Busoni, completed Philipp Jarnach
Doktor Faust [“shortened concert version created by Sir Adrian Boult”]
Faust – Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Mephistopheles – Richard Lewis
Wagner – Ian Wallace
Duchess of Parma – Heather Harper
Duke of Parma – John Cameron
London Philharmonic Choir; Ambrosian Singers; Chorus from the Royal Academy of Music
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Adrian Boult
Recorded 13 November 1959 at Royal Festival Hall, London
Reviewed by: Andrew Achenbach
Reviewed: September 2011
CD No: LPO – 0056
Duration: 74 minutes
Buried treasure indeed. Sir Adrian Boult was extraordinarily adventurous in his choice of repertoire during his distinguished tenure at the BBC, giving the British premieres of (among countless other masterworks) Mahler’s Third Symphony, Berg’s Wozzeck, Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky and, at a Queen’s Hall concert on 17 March 1937, Busoni’s Doktor Faust. The then recently knighted conductor excised several scenes “to bring it into a reasonable concert shape”, and even the composer’s widow, Gerda, was in attendance. The event was greeted with enthusiasm by the upcoming critic Desmond Shawe-Taylor, who wrote (in the London Mercury) of “a work of such originality and imaginative power that the memory of it must overshadow for some time the ordinary round of London music-making”.
Some twenty-two years later, on 13 November 1959, Boult returned to Busoni’s magnum opus for another concert performance, this time at the Royal Festival Hall (the document preserved here). Moreover, according to John Amis’s annotation, he also consulted the great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as to the best editorial policy. The present, thrillingly involving sequence clocks in at around an hour and a quarter, its contents tallying with the footnote in Chapter 29 of Michael Kennedy’s Boult biography which informs us that “the Symphonia, the Poem and the Intermezzo (‘Chapel in Münster’) were omitted”. That said, there are a couple of suspiciously abrupt fade-downs to background silence that momentarily made me wonder whether longer extracts from the opera were in fact given. And, indeed, others’ concerns have been raised as to whether this release represents the entire concert that was broadcast by the BBC in 1959.
Whatever the case, and turning to the performance itself, Boult marshals his assembled forces with painstaking care and customarily selfless authority. Granted, the LPO’s playing may not always be entirely free of blemish, but there’s no missing the spirit and whole-hearted dedication on show, and the sense of a genuine, one-off event is always compellingly conveyed. In the title role Fischer-Dieskau is on the most alluring and commandingly articulate form, his range of characterisation wholly spellbinding and the voice in even more fabulous condition than on his DG recording of the complete opera under Ferdinand Leitner made nearly ten years later. He receives stellar support from an all-British cast with not a single weak link in it: Ian Wallace brings real stature to the part of Wagner (Faust’s pupil and, later, his successor as University rector), Richard Lewis copes valiantly with the high-lying tessitura in the role of Mephistopheles, while Heather Harper makes an entrancingly fresh impression as the Duchess of Parma.
The original mono tapes (provided by the late Roger Beardsley) have come up very well indeed in Andrew Lang’s largely (and welcomingly) non-interventionist restoration: not only is the sound is admirably full-bodied and truthful in timbre (the strings in the sublime, purely orchestral ‘Sarabande’ possess that characteristic Boult glow), but the judicious balance struck by the BBC engineers is also to be applauded.
A rewarding and fascinating document, in sum, and one not to be missed.