Symphony No.22 in E flat (The Philosopher)
Parsifal – Prelude and Good Friday Music
Historia von D. Johann Fausten [selection; UK premiere of Acts 1 & 2]
Dr Faustus – Stephen Richardson
Mephistopheles – Andrew Watts
Mephistophelia – Anna Larsson
Narrator – Markus Brutscher
Chamber Choir of Moscow Conservatory
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 18 November, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
In a retrospective as wide-ranging as “Between Two Worlds”, it made sense that the Schnittke component centre on the opera which the composer was working towards over the preceding decades and which he finally completed in 1994, only for its premiere in Hamburg the following year to be a travesty of both his musical and dramatic intentions. Since then, “Historia von D. Johann Fausten” has made little headway on the world’s stages: this concert provided the opportunity to hear some 75 minutes of the apparently two-hour entity, taking in almost all of Act One, the climax of Act Two and the whole of Act Three.
While this opera fairly sums up the extent of Schnittke’s career as a composer, its musical range is narrower than might be expected. This is partly because the first two acts were a product of the early 1990s when, following his second major stroke, Schnittke evolved an idiom of greater austerity in which the polystylism associated with him was very largely absent. Those familiar with the Sixth, Seventh or Eighth symphonies will not have been fazed by the first 40 minutes of what they heard.
Following an impromptu introduction by the chorus, Faust’s early years – his precocious youth and dangerously unprincipled thirst for knowledge – are summarily surveyed through to the negotiation of his pact with the Devil. The reckless journeys on which they embark were omitted here, though the monologues in which he increasingly regrets his decisions were included as an effective transition. The instrumental writing is often unnervingly sparse, Schnittke’s customary extended orchestra serving largely to underpin the voices rather than provide a more substantial context. He no doubt had in mind the continuo accompaniment found in stage-works of the early Baroque, yet the often-demonstrative nature of the vocal writing often suggests a sparseness verging on the threadbare.
All of which changes with the third act, mainly because this is all but identical with the Faust cantata “Seid nüchtern und wachet” (Be Sober and Vigilant) that Schnittke completed in 1983. One of the most representative works from his period of ‘high polystylism’, this charts the final evening of Faust’s earthly life – the audience with his students, final admittance of shame and the ‘chimes of midnight’ that see his gory demise (the Johann Spies version of events on which Schnittke based his libretto admitting of Goethe-like transfiguration). The music here is alive with atmosphere and implication, the tension mounting through to the grim parody of a ‘Passion’ aria then the recounting of Faust’s death to the music of a tango and the strains of a chanteuse. The pithy but intense epilogue which posits the moral of the title rounds off one of the most scintillating half-hours in Schnittke’s output.
So, a tale of two eras that, at least in musical terms, fail to gel as they might. Yet this was hardly the fault of the performers: as Dr Faustus, Stephen Richardson was increasingly vulnerable in the recognition of his wrongdoing – evincing a latent humanity to which the dry neutrality of Markus Brutscher’s Narrator and, more especially, Andrew Watts’s icily vicious Mephistopheles were admirable foils. As the latter’s more ruthless double, Mephistophilia, Anna Larsson was as alluring visually as vocally, though she struggled to carry-off the death-scene tango with the requisite aplomb (anyone who heard Carol Wyatt’s electrifying rendition at the Vienna premiere might have felt short-changed).
Annabel Arden secured a very persuasive semi-staging, while Sian Harris ensured that the costumes (and those who wore them!) were suitably garish. The members of the Chamber Choir of Moscow Conservatory made the most of their interjections, and Vladimir Jurowski guided the LPO through the peaks and troughs of Schnittke’s writing with conviction (though the tango was taken too fast for its decadence fully to register). Whatever its failings, Schnittke’s Faust opera is too significant a statement not to receive a complete and sympathetic staging. Maybe Jurowski will do just this at Glyndebourne in due course?
This concert might though have warranted a complete performance, rather than the contrasting though not especially apposite items that had comprised the first half. Haydn’s ‘Philosopher’ was presumably included to link-in with the studious side of Faust’s nature: authentically present and correct as it was, Jurowski’s swift and unyielding account made precious little of the first movement’s thoughtful depths and only really came off in a trenchant Minuet. The ‘Prelude’ and ‘Good Friday Music’ from “Parsifal” was more successful – Jurowski drawing a keen mystery from the former and investing the latter with an airy poise. In the opera, Faust’s assistant is named Wagner – if this was the connection that decided the programme, however, the composer in question would unlikely have been amused.