Boston Symphony Orchestra – 1

La Damnation de Faust – Dramatic Legend, Op.24

Yvonne Naef (mezzo-soprano)
Marcello Giordani (tenor)
José Van Dam (bass-baritone)
Patrick Carfizzi (bass)

Finchley Children’s Music Group
Tanglewood Festival Chorus

Boston Symphony Orchestra
James Levine

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 6 September, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

James Levine. Photograph: Steven SenneBerlioz’s “The Damnation of Faust” – from ‘The Plains of Hungary’ to the Jaws of Hell (which Faust descends to thanks to Méphistophélès’s deception) and the Gates of Heaven (through which the pardoned Marguerite passes having been abandoned by Faust) – is not an obvious work to tour (given it requires four soloists, chorus and a girls’ choir). But that’s what the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood Festival Chorus have been doing – performances in Lucerne, Essen and Paris before this one in London (and, presumably, collecting a different children’s chorus at each venue) – the orchestra also including Bartók’s “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” and Concerto for Orchestra as well as pieces by Brahms, Carter, Ives and Ravel in its two-week European Tour that ends in London with a second Proms appearance.

James Levine, Music Director of the Boston Symphony since 2004 while continuing his already-long tenure at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, was seated for this performance, his lucid conducting style not compromised and entirely focussed on the music. The BSO has had a distinguished relationship with French music since the days of Charles Munch and, then, Seiji Ozawa and this tradition was proudly celebrated at this Prom with playing of immense distinction, character and refinement. Sometimes the brass was too loud, covering solo singers and strings, yet this was less a miscalculation than done for dramatic impetus, and it was a pleasure to hear cornets that were distinguishable from trumpets. The Orchestra’s lucent string sound, with no lack of fervour, illuminated the expressive potential of Berlioz’s music, and the woodwinds danced and lured impeccably and with a wonderful clarity of detail. Percussion colour and dynamics were of similar attention, the whole orchestra displaying an ‘internal perfection’ and an outgoing communication that overshadowed the other visiting orchestras to this year’s Proms.

Levine’s pacing of Berlioz’s score was ideally forward-moving, avoiding portentousness and indulgence – the three familiar orchestral sections were each new-minted: the ‘Rákóczy March’ light and deft, ‘Dance of the Sylphs, with a handful of strings, enchanted in its swiftness, and ‘Minuet of the Will-O’-the-Wisps’ was integrated into the whole (tempo-relationships throughout made the work seem seamless) and not turned into a ‘showpiece moment’.

Bass-baritone José van Dam, who sang Méphistophélès. Photograph: Tanja NiemannThe Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang from memory (as the did the soloists and the girls from the Finchley Music Group) and displayed impressive unanimity and a range of characterisations – Peasants, Christians, Drinkers (a wonderfully slurred “Amen”), Spirits, Soldiers, Students (Berlioz seemingly without limit in finding different ways to set “Gaudeamus”) and Damned souls and demons. The young singers from Finchley added angelic timbres in the final arrival (for Marguerite) in paradise.

Patrick Carfizzi’s brief appearance, as Brander, was but a few paragraphs, but the other three soloists have much to do. Marcello Giordani’s Faust took a while to settle vocally (although he could be strained later, very noticeably at one point) but he found Faust’s forlorn state from the off and also his awe of nature and his rapture when love-duetting with Marguerite, the generous tones of Yvonne Naef who, though, never quite suggested her character’s fullness (and was attended to eloquently by Steven Ansell’s viola and Robert Sheena’s cor anglais). José Van Dam, however, left no doubt as to the duplicitous motivations of Méphistophélès – from an unctuously ironic first entry to his ‘driving’ of Faust to ‘Pandemonium’, Levine, in the latter, setting a hot pace and bringing out all the ghoulish choral and orchestral effects.

The interval (between Parts 2 and 3) was a regret, so too the atmosphere at the very end being applauded into too quickly (a constant problem), but this performance – dedicated to Luciano Pavarotti – was one of this season’s high-points, not least for van Dam and the sheer quality of the Boston Symphony.

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