Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust – A survey of the major recordings
by Ralph Moore
The indifference – indeed, downright hostility – accorded this work on its premiere at the Opéra Comique in 1846 is puzzling; Berlioz himself was equally baffled and disappointed. Perhaps its indeterminate, hybrid genre contributed to that reaction; he first called it a “concert opera”, then a légende dramatique, and its form lies somewhere between a cantata – or an oratorio – and an opera. An additional symphonic aspect is contributed by the three main orchestral interludes, the Marche hongroise, the Ballet des sylphes, and the Menuet des follets, which are often performed in concert as a kind of suite, while Marguerite’s “Le roi de Thulé” is more of mélodie – indeed, it is called a chanson gothique in the text, having more in common with Schubert’s Lied “Der König in Thule” – but the work equally contains identifiably operatic sections featuring major arias. It can be, and certainly has been, successfully staged but is more usually found in the concert hall.
It is, of course, based on Goethe’s Faust and reflects the themes explored by the great German writer which echoed in Berlioz’ own heart. He and two fellow librettists adapted the text, but he also made his own additions with Faust’s Invocation to Nature and the invention of a suitably harsh demonic language for the Infernal Choir in Pandaemonium. For me, it is the work most typical of Berlioz’s gift for innovation and synthesis, a heady admixture which, without fragmenting, encompasses many themes, moods and emotions: the Romantic attachment to Nature, the search for lost youth and the Ideal Woman, a Satanic pact and supernatural intervention, carousing in a tavern, a doomed love affair of seduction and betrayal, military glory, patriotism, madness, faith, damnation and salvation. This potpourri of ideas and an indeterminacy of genre are reflected in other of his major works – Roméo et Juliette, the Symphonie fantastique and Les Troyens, for example – but none combines so many of Berlioz’ idées fixes.
It was not his first attempt to translate his enthusiastic reaction into music; his Op. 1 was Eight Scenes from Faust (1829) which he recalled when he realised that his ambitions for it were on a much larger scale. There is an excellent recording of that initial essay conducted by Yutaka Sado on the budget Apex label.
Like so many of Berlioz’ compositions, La damnation de Faust is technically astounding, with extraordinarily atmospheric instrumentation and tone-painting, and the deployment of fugue, harmony and counterpoint, culminating in the overwhelming Ride to the Abyss and the two Hell and Heaven scenes; Boito surely borrowed something of it for his Mefistofele which has similarly epic – and lyrical – passages.
There are about fifty recordings in the catalogue. I consider nineteen major recordings below spanning nearly eighty years, beginning, for historical interest, with the 1941 studio recording, then Monteux’s classic 1962 performance live in the Royal Festival Hall, then all eleven of the subsequent studio recordings which have been released on CD, a live-composite recording from John Eliot Gardiner and finally five of the most recent live performances, there having been no new studio recording since Chung’s in 1995/96. As ever, my tastes in singers and knowledge – such as it is – of vocal technique dictate my judgement; my regular readers will know that my tolerance for what I hear as a constricted sound is limited, hence some recordings are ruled out by the presence of particular singers, regardless of other merits – but I try to justify my response. I confine my scope to audio recordings. Many of these recordings have been previously reviewed by MusicWeb colleagues and I acknowledge their reviews where I can. I am a confessed Berlioz nut and consider him to be one of the half-dozen greatest composers, although I appreciate that some sophisticated, music-loving friends simply do not “get” him. Taste for him is rather like individual responses to wine; for me, he remains “grand cru”.
Note: a free, online libretto in French only is available here: The Hector Berlioz Website – Berlioz Libretti La Damnation de Faust (hberlioz.com)
Jean Fournet – 1942 (studio; mono) Malibran
Grand Orchestre de Radio Paris et Fanfares
Choeurs Emile Passani
Faust – Georges Jouatte
Méphistophélès – Paul Cabanel
Marguerite – Mona Lauréna
Brander – André Pactat
You may sample this on YouTube (wrongly dated 1951). The sound is really rather good for its age and very listenable. Fournet was a master of French repertoire and left several classic recordings including a first-class Pelléas et Mélisande recorded in 1953 (see my survey) and a reference recording of Les pêcheurs de perles. You may immediately hear how his pacing of the Marche hongroise begins seductively slowly and builds wonderfully to a grand climax; I love everything he does with the score, as he encompasses all its disparate moods. It is interesting to hear how essentially French an idiomatic recording with all-French forces sounds compared with the “international” sets I review below; it seems that only native speakers can enunciate the language wholly convincingly.
Georges Jouatte has fine, clear, boyish – if slightly plaintive – tenor with an easy vocal production; the way he just touches and floats the A-flats in “Merci, doux crepuscule!” is so seductive. Mephistophélès was Paul Cabanel’s most famous role and he reputedly sang it a thousand times – although such estimates are usually hyperbolical. He has a pure, resonant voice, slightly lighter than exponents of the role with more bass in their tone but plenty of heft – he also sang Wotan. This is where he scores over Gallic colleagues such as Singher and Roux (see the next two reviews below). The Brander, one André Pactat, is by far the best in any recording I have heard – and a singer unknown to me and, I suspect, everyone else; he also sings beautifully in the epilogue. Nor was I familiar with Mona Lauréna; she is evidently another true soprano rather than the mezzo I prefer as Marguerite but she is not a twitterer; she has lower register resources and sings in a manner which reminds me of Edith Mathis below in Ozawa’s excellent recording. The chorus sounds small and individual voices obtrude but they sing with great gusto – the ironic “Amen” fugue is extraordinarily vibrant and the tenors really let rip in the big numbers.
This cannot be a first recommendation for reasons of its antiquity and the fact that – inexplicably and unforgivably – the love duet in Part III is cut, but it will be of interest as a supplement for anyone interested in historical recordings which enshrine a vanished style – and is, in any case, an excellent performance per se.
Charles Munch – 1954 (studio; mono) RCA Red Seal
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Harvard Glee Club & Radcliffe Choral Society
Faust – David Poleri
Méphistophélès – Martial Singher
Marguerite – Suzanne Danco
Brander – Donald Gramm
There is no doubting Munch’s no-nonsense authority as a Berlioz conductor. At three minutes over two hours, this is one of the faster accounts on record but it does not sound rushed and Munch’s ability to keep things moving is welcome. Nor does he in any sense scant the lyricism of the love music. Apart from his masterly control, the greatest assets here are the energised chorus and the Faust of the ill-fated David Poleri (he perished in a helicopter crash). He skilfully manages the high tessitura and controls a fast vibrato which lends penetrative power to his voice. I thoroughly enjoy his set pieces, such as his impassioned “Merci, doux crepuscule!”; he eschews the optional high C-sharps in the Part III love duet but makes a wonderful job of the two top Bs. Donald Gramm is a firm, virile Brander. I am, however, less impressed by Singher’s suave but under-powered Méphistophélès; there is little bite or depth in his voice – he is a light, drawing-room baritone and sounds more like an amiable uncle than a scheming demon. “Voici des roses” is elegant but fairly grey-toned. It is also a thousand pities that the master tapes for this, RCA’s first stereo recording, have gone missing and re-issues are forcibly in mono. That does not by any means ruin our pleasure but it is a drawback in the larger-scale pieces. Suzanne Danco is charming, as ever, her pure soprano suggestive of Marguerite’s naÏveté and the advantage of having a native French speaker is evident but I am habituated to hearing a warmer, darker voice matching the solo viola and cor anglais respectively in her – albeit both beautifully sung – “Thulé” aria and “D’amour l’ardente flamme”.
We may hear that Munch makes the hectic Ride to the Abyss a thrilling event despite our not having the benefit of stereo sound and I can well understand loyalty to this vintage recording, but its cumulative disadvantages prevent me from making it a top choice.
Igor Markevitch – 1958 (studio; stereo) DG
Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux
Chorale Elisabeth Brasseur
Faust – Richard Verreau
Méphistophélès – Michel Roux
Marguerite – Consuelo Rubio
Brander – Pierre Mollet
This is a famous recording and we must be grateful that it was made in stereo, as so many of Markevitch’s recordings of the mid-50s missed out on that crucial technological advance. There are some slight cuts and there are times when one feels that even compared with Munch the conductor is a bit hasty, as the short running time of 113 minutes suggests.
As with Munch, however, the star of the show is the tenor, the under-recorded Richard Verreau. I quote here from my recent review of the Markevitch box set “The Philips Legacy” which contains this recording: “La Damnation de Faust has long been a favourite recording and has the greatest claim to authenticity, being recorded in Paris with a French orchestra, conductor and choir and, with one exception, a native -French speaking cast. Canadian tenor Richard Verreau, was a Gigli pupil who had a successful international career until it was cut short by vocal issues and an unsuccessful throat operation. He recorded comparatively little, making this 1959 stereo souvenir of his prowess especially valuable. His perfect French, mellifluous, even voice with ringing top notes and smooth legato make him the ideal exponent of the flawed anti-hero Faust. Michel Roux is certainly no bass-baritone, and in that regard is rather similar to his predecessor Martial Singher in that he has a typically light, rather dry-toned French baritone which is pleasing but too refined; nonetheless, he is sneeringly elegant as Méphistophélès. Pierre Mollet as Brander hasn’t a great voice but is very characterful. I prefer a duskier-toned voice than that of Spanish soprano Consuelo Rubio like that of Janet Baker or Frederica von Stade, but she sings warmly and feelingly and both the viola and cor anglais accompaniments to her arias are superb. Markevitch’s conducting is electric; the ‘Pandaemonium’ chorus is terrific.”
Despite my carping, so much else about this recording is right that its status as a classic is deserved. For more detail, I refer you to my colleague John Quinn’s previous review with which I agree on almost every account.
Pierre Monteux – 1962 (live; mono) BBC Legends
London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus
Faust – André Turp
Méphistophélès – Michel Roux
Marguerite – Régine Crespin
Brander – John Shirley-Quirk
The mono sound here is really quite acceptable if over-reverberant; there is some wiriness, a few loud, inconsiderate coughs – someone actually blows his nose loudly in “Merci, doux crepuscule!” – and the chorus sounds rather distant, but there is also considerable depth, and the sure grip of Monteux’s direction combined with the sonority of the LSO means that the ear soon adjusts. I like the way Monteux starts the Hungarian March briskly yet still builds throughout to the climax; too many conductors make it sound laboured and insufficiently military. Every choice of tempo and emphasis Monteux makes here is right – for once the introduction to “D’amour l’ardente flamme” doesn’t drag and his control of the Ride to the Abyss is exemplary; the bass ophicleide- or is it just the conventional tuba? – snarls wonderfully as the pursuing monster and for once we have a properly chilling climax. He is the best conductor of all.
French Canadian tenor André Turp sometimes has something of a slow beat in his vibrato but is identifiably Gallic in sound and manner, in the proper tradition of virile voices of some heft, without whine or undue falsetto bias and with pellucid diction – though he avoids the optional high line in the love duet. Roux repeats the light, elegant, Méphistophélès we hear under Markevitch but four years on his voice is considerably more “bottled” and not the least bit “bassy” or menacing – to me it just sounds effete and inadequate for an arch-demon who threatens his will-o’-the-wisps thus:
Et vous, marquez bien la cadence, Ménétriers d’enfer, ou je vous éteins tous. (And you, minstrels of hell, Keep time well, or I shall extinguish you all.)
When Roux speaks these warning words, they have no threat in them at all. Having said that, there is a kind of oily charm to his “Voice des roses”.
John Shirley-Quirk sings in excellent French and even clearly adapts the timbre of his bass-baritone to sound more authentically nasal.
I am not always a great fan of Régine Crespin, always hearing an edge in her sound and she tends to scoop, but the darker colour of her soprano suits the music and of course her diction is perfect. Her “Le roi de Thulé” is blighted by a cougher but she sings with considerable pathos.
The relatively primitive sound in comparison with the splendour of stereo and digital recordings below means this cannot be a top recommendation but the Berlioz devotee will want this as supplement to a more modern recording.
Georges Prêtre – 1969 (studio; stereo) EMI
Orchestre de Paris
Chorus – Théâtre National de l’Opéra de Paris
Faust – Nicolai Gedda
Méphistophélès – Gabriel Bacquier
Marguerite – Janet Baker
Brander – Pierre Thau
There are several obstacles to my appreciating this recording. First, as much as I am devoted to Dame Janet, Marguerite’s role is relatively secondary to that of Faust and Méphistophélès and I do not much care for Gedda’s tenor, which I too often find white and whining, or Bacquier’s gruff baritone which, apart from when he was young, tends to grate on my ear. Prêtre, too, can be problematic; he did some lovely things but sometimes rushed fences.
Having said that, I find nothing wrong with his direction here; it is by turns lyrical and energised. He and his performers are immersed in the Gallic idiom and the benefit of having so many Francophones in the cast soon becomes apparent. Gedda, however, soon turns to crooning and bleating intermittently; despite his reputation as a stylist, he is not a patch on Verreau, Poleri or Stuart Burrows. Bacquier characterises strongly but at the expense of tone and line; there is a lot of shouting and barking and his top notes are weak.
One thing is certain: this will never be a prime recommendation and I would not keep it on my too-cluttered shelves were it not for the presence of Baker and the fact that it is coupled with one of her supreme recordings, La mort de Cléopâtre.
(Note: the duration figure for CD2 is wrongly duplicated from CD1 as 76:55; it is in fact 57:50, including Cléopâtre which is 20:56)
Colin Davis – 1973 (studio; stereo) Philips
London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus
Ambrosian Singers – Wandsworth School Boys’ Choir
Faust – Nicolai Gedda
Méphistophélès – Jules Bastin
Marguerite – Josephine Veasey
Brander – Richard Van Allan
I am immediately struck by the fullness of Philips’ sound here. This has become a classic reference recording for many and there is indeed much about it which is stellar. My own reservation about it again centres upon the casting of Gedda as Faust, as I do not much enjoy his voice and find the whine in his tone wearing – as per the opening to the passage of dramatic recitative where he contemplates suicide, “Sans regrets j’ai quitté les riantes campagnes”; to me the sound is most unpleasant. I refer you to my response to the Prêtre recording immediately above for my assessment of him, as his performance here is essentially identical.
Davis seizes this music by the scruff of the neck and wrings every iota of drama out of it – a feat which is all the more daring when you consider that before his recordings, much of Berlioz’ music was unknown to the wider public (although of course Beecham was also an advocate of it, starting in in the 30s). His tempi are urgent and he has a knack of engineering especially snappy, well-sprung rhythms. The final demonic chorus is shattering; the gentlemen of the LSO Chorus ensure that it outdoes most other choirs here – and their enunciation of the satanic language is preternaturally incisive.
If you like Gedda more than I, this is probably the better option over Prêtre, especially as the ever-under-rated Josephine Veasey is as good as Janet Baker, and both Davis’ conducting and Bastin’s Méphistophélès are superior Prêtre and Bacquier respectively. How I wish Stuart Burrows had been the tenor here. Bastin was always somewhat dry and grey of timbre – there isn’t much true bass resonance in his tone – but as a native Belgian he has a perfect command of French and inflects it very characterfully, with the same sardonically humorous acumen which makes a success of his Balducci in Benvenuto Cellini for Davis the year before and his Somarone in Béatrice et Bénédict five years later. Richard Van Allan is a rather clumsy-voiced Brander. Veasey, whom we lost only last year aged 91, had such a naturally beautiful voice whose timbre was somehow a perfect match for Berlioz’ music, as her Dido demonstrated; she and the vigour of Davis’ conducting are by far the best things about this recording.
You may hear this recording in its entirety on YouTube.
Seiji Ozawa – 1974 (studio; stereo) DG; Pentatone
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Tanglewood Festival Chorus & Boston Boys Choir
Faust – Stuart Burrows
Méphistophélès – Donald McIntyre
Marguerite – Edith Mathis
Brander – Thomas Paul
Dave Billinge reviewed this very positively in 2015. He spends much of his review providing a useful account of the excellence of the sound engineering and I refer you to that for details, but he also praises the performance, concluding with, “This is quite the most exciting Faust I have heard on record, putting even Solti at least a touch in the shade.”
Certainly first impressions, formed by the generous but detail-revealing acoustic, the sumptuous orchestral sound and the most beautiful tenor alongside Richard Verreau, Stuart Burrows, could not be more favourable. Burrows has both mellifluous tone and ample heft; I find his opening apostrophe very moving – and “Merci, doux crepuscule!” opening Part III is meltingly lovely. His French is very good, too. Ozawa excelled in Berlioz – his Roméo et Juliette is equally successful. We then encounter the Boston Boys Choir and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in top form and already my cup overfloweth; I am fully engaged by this combination of virtues which eludes some other recordings. A stunning Marche hongroise ensues – yes; I am aware that Berlioz, knowing it was a hit, shamelessly shoe-horned it into the work by arbitrarily switching the venue to Hungary but when it’s played this well, I care not.
If only the casting of the other two principal roles were as successful. Donald McIntyre’s baritone is robust but he has none of the suavity and elegance proper to the characterisation of Méphistophélès and his French is syllabically correct but not idiomatic. He sounds as if Wotan had dropped by; there isn’t a hint of subtle, sinister charm about his “Voici des roses”. (Prêtre’s Bacquier has exactly the inverse problem: perfect French and ample character but rough, weak vocalisation.) The Brander here is a bit rough, too.
As much as I love Edith Mathis, she is a light lyric soprano and I do not think she is ideally cast as Marguerite. Nonetheless, she has considerable heft at climactic points, sings most feelingly in excellent French and represents one kind of ideal portrayal, even if it is not mine. As singing per se, hers is most attractive and she is beautifully accompanied by the solo viola in her first aria; she is secure and impassioned in her love duet and even injects a bit of duskiness into her timbre for “D’amour l’ardente flamme” which she sings with admirable line.
In sum, this is not my perfect version but so much about it is first-rate that it is a top contender.
Daniel Barenboim – 1978 (studio; stereo) DG
Orchestra & Chorus – Orchestre de Paris
Faust – Plácido Domingo
Méphistophélès – Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Marguerite – Yvonne Minton
Brander – Jules Bastin
The presence of the woolly-voiced Fischer-Dieskau as Méphistophélès immediately sets off alarm bells; one assumes that he pulled rank to snaffle the part and ensure that the much better-suited Jules Bastin was relegated to the relatively minor role of Brander – but he now actually sounds relatively voiceless, barking and gasping his way through his “rat” aria, so perhaps that was a contributing factor to his demotion. DFD croons his way through the role rolling his r’s with relish but does not actually provide much vocal variety or verbal nuance. My scepticism is immediately compounded by the most listless, lethargic March hongroise on record – I have no idea what Barenboim was thinking but he appears to be sleepwalking. That lack of energy infects both the orchestra and the chorus; the set numbers are weak and plodding – and that runs through this recording into the last Part, which features a very anodyne demonic choir.
One bright spot here should be the lovely Yvonne Minton – but her solos are fatally compromised by the conductor’s enervated tempi; were it not for it clearly being at the right pitch you could be forgiven for thinking that “D’amour l’ardente flamme” is running at the wrong speed, and the part seems to lie a bit high for her. I am not much enthused by Plácido Domingo as Faust – indifferent French and the wrong timbre for the role in comparison with several superb French stylists – but he sings pleasantly in a generic way. The best thing here is his duet with Minton, “Ange adoré”; he copes surprisingly well with the high-flying passages and top notes as he still young and fresh-voiced here, but they are clearly a stretch for him.
Overall, the whole enterprise is disappointing, mainly for the conducting and DFD – which is strange given that Béatrice et Bénédict from the same team the following year is a considerable success.
Georg Solti – 1981 (studio; digital) Decca
Chicago Symphony Orchestra & Chorus
Faust – Kenneth Riegel
Méphistophélès – José van Dam
Marguerite – Frederica Von Stade
Brander – Malcolm King
On listening to the first bars of this recording I am simultaneously uplifted by the sumptuousness of the “Chicago sound” and irked by the hard, “bottled” character of Riegel’s tenor. He sings passionately with expression and in good French, but how I wish Stuart Burrows had been Solti’s tenor instead. (I don’t think Solti had the best ear for tenors; recordings such as his Covent Garden La traviata with Angela Gheorghiu are often blighted by his choice; the ingolato tenor of Frank Lopardo spoils that one – not to mention baritone Leo Nucci.) Anyway, it is what it is – and what it is, is otherwise brilliant, with perfect casting for the other two principal roles and the best orchestra and chorus imaginable in great digital sound – on a par with the Ozawa stereo recording. Solti’s gift for generating excitement comes frequently into play where conductors such as Inbal are too restrained. Little details like the drum roll before the thrilling Marche hongroise – listen to that brass! – inject such vitality into the music.
Only Janet Baker matches Frederica von Stade for mellow evenness of sound and pathos; her gift is the ability to suggest youth and vulnerability while maintaining a velvety warmth of voice; casting a lighter, brighter soprano does no favours to the music. (This is a performance to set alongside her wonderful Desdemona in Rossini’s – not Verdi’s – Otello.) José van Dam is the epitome of saturnine malevolence – and at his considerable vocal peak here. The long-breathed languor of his “Voici des roses” is a dream and listen to how deftly he vocalises the text in his Sérénade. Malcolm King is a bit lumpy as Brander and could have better low notes but he is enthusiastic enough.
Solti delivers the climax of the work with all the impact you might expect of him and the demonic chorus is very powerful. The contributions of everybody here apart, sadly, from the eponymous leading role, make this recording indispensable to Berlioz aficionados.
John Eliot Gardiner – 1987 (live composite; digital) Philips
Orchestra – L’Opéra de Lyon
Edinburgh Festival Chorus
Faust – Michael Myers
Méphistophélès – Jean-Philippe Lafont
Marguerite – Anne Sofie von Otter
Brander – René Schirrer
Three of the singers here later re-recorded their roles – Michael Myers and René Schirrer as long as sixteen years later for Casadesus and to neither’s advantage (see below), and Anne Sofie von Otter for Chung in 1995-96 – in which she, by contrast, is again excellent.
I rather like Jean-Philippe Lafont’s Méphistophélès; he is sly, sarcastic and a good vocal actor with some welcome weight in his tone. His voice is considerably more attractive than the many rather cloudy-toned or under-powered devils I have encountered in this survey. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus could be mistaken for a French outfit and sing with plenty of attack.
Given that I listened to Casadesus’ recording before this one, I expected Michael Myers to be the comparative weakness but unsurprisingly his voice is in much better condition here for Gardiner. It is still not by any means the most beautiful or powerful of instruments but largely free of the flaws which afflict that later performance. In challenging set pieces like “Le vieil hiver” his voice is tighter and steadier, and top notes are freer than later became the case. His soft singing is attractive, too and he manages the love duet, “Ange adore”, very prettily. I was rather hoping that a younger René Schirrer would similarly sound fuller and more youthful but he still shouts somewhat and his low notes are again weak.
Gardiner’s direction is fine; I like the way he handles set pieces like the “Amen” fugue, which is steadier than many and nicely mock serious without undue exaggeration. The Marche hongroise is a little too restrained – but perhaps I am habituated to the likes of Munch and Solti there and the orchestral playing is first-rate; it elicits a premature “Bravo!” and applause. “La course à l’abîme” is fast and furious: the nuns’ shrieks, the beasts’ bellows and the demons’ howling are all splendidly vivid.
There is a little coughing but nothing troublesome. The digital sound is dull and well-balanced.
As one of the best things about this recording is von Otter’s Marguerite and we can hear her singing virtually identically but even better partnered later for Chung, this account is not necessarily the most recommendable, but it is considerably better than might have been expected and by no means unsatisfactory. All three principal singers give great pleasure and Gardiner is an astute, flexible and sensitive conductor, expertly encompassing all the musical moods from the lyrical to the bombastic.
This was a pleasant surprise.
Eliahu Inbal – 1989 (studio; digital) Denon; Brilliant
Radio-Sinfonie Orchester Frankfurt
Kölner Rundfunkchor – Südfunk-Chor Stuttgart – Chor des NDR Hamburg
Faust – Denés Gulyás
Méphistophélès – Robert Lloyd
Marguerite – Maria Ewing
Brander – Manfred Volz
This is something of a sleeper in that I have always thought distinguished Israeli conductor Eliahu Inbal under-rated. Here, he directs a great orchestra and three very interesting principal singers in an excellent digital recording in the Romantic repertoire which has always been his forte. Originally issued by Denon, it is now available in a collected Berlioz bargain box set on the Brilliant label and as a separate Brilliant issue. Hungarian tenor Dénes Gulyás had a relatively brief but very successful career before entering politics and he sings rather better than several other tenors in this survey – although some of his French vowels are odd and occasionally I could do with a bit more heft. The choir is lusty and Inbal directs one of the best, most exhilarating accounts of the Marche hongroise. However, he is perhaps strongest in the lyrical interludes; the magical Scene 7 is certainly a highlight here until the students’ and soldiers’ choruses, which are too slow – but he matches and supports Gulyas’ poetic delivery of his solos. He is perhaps a little less urgent in the Ride to the Abyss and little things like the demons’ “Ha!” in the Sérénade could be more emphatic. The demons’ chorus is pretty lively but they are too remote in the sound picture.
John Quinn reviewed this back in 2013 and even-handedly weighed up its merits and failings in comparison with Colin Davis’ two recordings, coming down marginally in favour of the later version. I agree with several of his observations but much prefer Robert Lloyd’s admittedly rather nasal but imposing bass to the smaller-voiced Pertusi. His French is excellent and “Voici des roses” richly and seductively sung. I also mind less the broader acoustic given to Inbal but can hear that it keeps the chorus somewhat too distant and deprives the more vigorous passage of the impact we hear in Davis’ recordings. Manfred Volz’ brief excursion as Brander reveals him to have a nice, sturdy bass. Like Janet Baker and Frederica von Stade, Maria Ewing has a smokier timbre than many other singers of the role of Marguerite, which can militate against sounding like an ingenue but, I think, suits Berlioz’ music better – especially Le roi de Thulé. She invests her music with deep feeling but hasn’t always the smoothest, sweetest tone despite its darker sound.
On balance, I agree with JQ that this is a highly commendable version but not, perhaps, a top choice.
(For an opinion which, while conceding the merits of this recording, presents a judgement of the work itself wholly at odds with my own, I refer you this review.)
Charles Dutoit – 1994 (studio; digital) Decca
Montreal Symphony Orchestra & Chorus
Faust – Richard Leech
Méphistophélès – Gilles Cachemaille
Marguerite – Françoise Pollet
Brander – Michel Philippe
Dutoit could be excellent in French music and he has the advantage of a Francophone cast apart from the American Richard Leech who also sings good French. He hasn’t the juiciest tenor and there is sometimes a hint of bleat when he puts his voice under pressure but he is a good stylist and sounds Gallic. Dutoit isn’t the most exciting or energised of conductors, either; he is content to let the music amble along without it ever catching fire, so potentially thrilling passages are…just fine but rarely gripping. Hence, despite some nice thundering timpani, Pandaemonium is a bit domesticated and some of the demonic gentlemen sound like kindly old souls. From his first words, “O pure emotion!”, Cachemaille sounds too light and benevolent to be a convincing demon – there is no steel in his voice and he wobbles, turns husky and shouts under pressure – and when he proclaims “J’en suis maître à jamais!” he could be announcing “Dinner is served”. Nor is there any hint of sensuality in his crooned “Voici des roses”. The Brander is weak. For some reason the tenors of the chorus squawk in the ‘Amen’ fugue.
Pollet, like Yvonne Minton in Barenboim’s recording, is somewhat hampered by Dutoit’s listless beat and a pulsing vibrato which lends her a matronly air; she could as easily be Marguerite’s poor old poisoned mum as an innocent maid. I don’t need a sedative to drop off when she and Dutoit are serenading me and her timbre is nowhere as seductive as the finest singers in this role.
In truth, none of the singers here is sufficiently charismatic and Dutoit is plain dull. So, moving on…
Kent Nagano – 1994 (studio; digital) Erato
Orchestra & Chorus – L’Opéra National de Lyon
Faust – Thomas Moser
Méphistophélès – José van Dam
Marguerite – Susan Graham
Brander – Frédéric Caton
The presence of José van Dam, Susan Graham, a French orchestra and chorus and a conductor whom I usually enjoy, recorded in excellent sound, would be enough to predispose me to like this recording were it not for two problems: a bleating, constricted tenor whose voice I do not like at all and Nagano’s intermittent habit of aping Colin Davis and Barbirolli in grunting and groaning along with the music all too audibly. Yet I like Nagano’s pacing, the light, lively, idiomatic choral singing and perky orchestral playing. Admittedly, Moser was just at the stage of transitioning to heavier tenor roles and his voice is not as grating as it later became but I see little point in opting for him when I can hear superior singers and van Dam is heard in sappier, more youthful voice for Solti, whose tenor, Kenneth Riegel, is likewise not ideal but preferable to Moser. Van Dam is still very good, however, singing a very steady “Voici des roses”, even if his tone is a little cloudier than of yore, and I like the chorus very much; they invariably sound really engaged and sing without strain. Susan Graham is ideal as Marguerite, very similar to von Stade in timbre and affect; she sounds young yet her voice has warmth and vibrancy. There seems to be a penchant among some conductors toward taking “D’amour l’ardente flamme” more slowly than I think the music demands – Marguerite is, after all, talking about erotic passion – but Graham can handle Nagano’s tempo, such is her legato and the steadiness of her soft singing and he moves the music along more as her intensity increases. To my perhaps over-fastidious ears, the contrast between the delicacy of her final, pianissimo note and the start of Moser’s pulsing “Nature immense”, which immediately ensues, is jarring. The firm-based Frédéric Caton as Brander, is certainly considerably better than many here, in a role which, for all that it’s only brief, is often under-cast and hence rather poorly sung.
If you are more tolerant than I of Moser and the grunting, there is still so much to enjoy here, not least the vigour of Nagano’s direction and the singing of the other two principals. Not for the first time, I wish a different tenor had been cast.
(You may hear this in its entirety on YouTube.)
Myung-Whun Chung – 1995-96 (studio; digital) DG
Philharmonia Orchestra & Chorus
Eton College Boys’ Choir
Faust – Keith Lewis
Méphistophélès – Bryn Terfel
Marguerite – Anne Sofie von Otter
Brander – Victor von Halem
Every survey turns up a surprise or two – and this was one of those.
Keith Lewis is a sweet-voiced tenor even if the high C-sharp in the love duet involves his making some odd gear-changes which he cunningly disguises with a pianissimo effect – and I think it works. Von Otter, here in her second recording nearly a decade after the first, still has the right timbre: warm and sensuous; they make a convincing couple. She sings her two arias with full, warm, yet restrained tone and is in the best tradition of mezzos as Marguerite, with a fast but not fluttery vibrato and evenness throughout the tessitura of the role. There is always a classy restraint about her singing that I find most apt; she sounds young, vulnerable and distressed.
I could always see that the role of Méphistophélès suited the extrovert demeanour, linguistic gifts and vocal steel of the young Bryn Terfel. His voice has plenty of “ping” and resonance – and indeed his demon is by far the most convincing of the last thirty years. He delivers all his set pieces with relish – smooth as silk in “Voici des roses” and a biting, sarcastic Serenade at top speed with an emphatic “Ha!”. He might not be a native French speaker but he has a knack of giving words the right emphasis and bring them alive.
The Philharmonia forces are excellent – a good-sized, full-voiced chorus in a big, resonant acoustic, sounding most impressive. Chung’s direction seems to me to be flawless. No recording of this work is successful unless the demons in Part 4 are scary and they and the orchestra make a splendid din here. All the signs are good from the full-fat Marche hongroise in part 1 and that promise is carried through. The raucous brass are a joy and there is real venom in the final demonic chorus; we believe Terfel’s Méphistophélès when he declares “J’en suis maître à jamais” (I am master of him for ever).
Victor von Halem makes a nice, fruity old roué of a Brander; he has plenty of heft in a role which is too often just shouted or growled.
The digital sound here is the best I have encountered – every strand of this music is clear but the big, concerted ensembles are mightily impressive.
Bernard Haitink – 1999 (live; digital) Challenge Classics
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir
Faust – Vinson Cole
Méphistophélès – Thomas Quasthoff
Marguerite – Charlotte Margiono
Brander – Jaco Huijpen
This was another surprise, starting with Vinson Cole’s gentle, elegant Faust. There isn’t much steel or heft in his voice but he sings with sensitivity and feeling in good French. He resorts to falsetto for some high-flying lines but does so tastefully and finds more lower register weight for more impassioned passages. Haitink is his usual reliable self – not always especially exciting but he does everything as it should be done and clearly brings out the best in his impressive Dutch orchestra; the Hungarian March is nicely sprung and rises to a splendid climax, prompting applause from the audience – this is live – and setting the tone for the rest of the performance. He takes the Ride to the Abyss faster than most and generates real tension with shrieking woodwind, prominent timpani and growling brass. The chorus is substantial and responds to the music in a varied, nuanced manner, singing with real verve and gusto – the ‘Pandaemonium’ scene has real impact. As with Bryn Terfel for Chung, I would have guessed that Thomas Quasthoff would be well suited to the role of Méphistophélès – and so it proves. His first phrase – “O pure emotion!” – is honied, he then injects bite and heft into his voice, sounding both charming and wicked – and a “proper” black-voiced bass-baritone of the George London type is what is needed for this role; indeed, London did sing the Serenade. Quasthoff has great top notes and excellent French, too. The dark-voiced Jaco Huijpen sounds like a real bar-room brawler and characterises Brander vividly.
Which leaves the Marguerite, Dutch soprano Charlotte Margiono. Although not a mezzo, she has the smoky timbre and rounded sound required with a degree of lower-register development. However, she is not as individual or characterful as some; a slight beat in her vibrato and a certain fruity, maturity of tone make her something less than ideal. She is by no means a liability but sounds rather hooty in the love duet and Cole resorts frequently there to falsetto crooning, so it is not the highlight it can be, despite the lyricism of the music and Haitink’s careful shaping of it. The same can be said of her arias; she sounds more like a stately matron than a giddy, lovesick girl.
The sound is first-class; very little audience noise and excellent balances – but the mis-casting of Margiono is a drawback.
Colin Davis – 2000 (live composite; digital) LSO Live
London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus
Faust – Giuseppe Sabbatini
Méphistophélès – Michele Pertusi
Marguerite – Enkelejda Shkosa
Brander – David Wilson-Johnson
After too many constricted tenors, it’s a pleasure to hear immediately the under-rated Sabbatini’s open-throated Faust; he has an intrinsically beautiful voice and he sings in excellent French, too. He is suitably dramatic at key points, managing the C sharps in the love duet thrillingly in full voice, but also capable of singing softly, as he soon demonstrates in “Sans regrets”. His tenor comes through but the infamously flat, dry Barbican acoustic isn’t very friendly to voices in general and others apart from me have remarked that the recording level here is lower than is ideal, so you have to crank it up (probably less of a problem on high-end equipment). Perhaps that also partially accounts for a rather tame Hungarian March, which decidedly lacks impact compared with Davis’ earlier recording. The same is true of the Infernal Ride – but I like the way Davis has the nuns sing in the hard, nasal way I have heard in Italian churches and the thudding bass drum is even louder than the demons.
Davis’ careful moulding of the music is another instantly noticeable advantage; unfortunately, equally apparent is the conductor’s constant, compulsive vocalisation, which becomes a real irritant. The uncongenial acoustic dulls the choir’s contribution, but not his, which is increasingly audible and intrusive. It is sometimes so bad that for a moment I thought that Sabbatini had come in early before “Merci, doux crepuscule!” (which, by the way he sings very sweetly) or that I was hearing the old pre-echo we used to get on tape, and at times the aria becomes a duet between a fine tenor and a humming conductor.
Davis also duets with Enkelejda Shkosa throughout, just as he turns the love duet into a trio. Shkosa has an appealing, dark timbre but the over-vibrancy of her vibrato sometimes makes her sound flat. As with Barenboim, Davis’ “D’amour l’ardente flamme” is first exaggeratedly slow for my taste and I find the sudden acceleration after “je suis à ma fenêtre” too extreme. Michael Pertusi is somewhat dry-voiced and effortful as Méphistophélès and often finds himself competing with the vocalisation from the rostrum, especially as his voice hasn’t much penetrative power. He shouts rather than sings “Esprits des flammes”; likewise, David Wilson-Johnson tries to make not a lot of voice go further through verbal acting but he hasn’t much punch. Sabbatini apart, there isn’t much for the canary-fancier to get excited about here. There are better options.
Jean-Claude Casadesus – 2003 (live; digital) Naxos
Orchestre National de Lille
Slovak Philharmonic Chorus
Faust – Michael Myers
Méphistophélès – Alain Vernhes
Marguerite – Marie-Ange Todorovitch
Brander – René Schirrer
Two MWI colleagues reviewed this when it appeared back in 2006 (review; review). Sixteen years after he recorded Faust for Gardiner, tenor Michael Myers appears again here and time has not enhanced his suitability for the role. GF remarked that he “has a timbre that is not unlike that of Nicolai Gedda” which he intended as a compliment but added that “[h]is voice is not completely free from strain” and I fear that I do not find him “impressive”; whereas he was excellent for Gardiner, here he sounds like an over-parted comprimario tenor promoted beyond his capacity, as his voice is quite white, lachrymose and bleating. JW in his review is more of my mind: “he begins with something of a bleat in his voice; throughout there’s a tightening or constriction in the voice that never allows for proper freedom of vocal production.”
This means that once again we have a “Hamlet without the Prince” scenario, so it matters little what the other virtues of the recordings are. Alain Vernhes has a light, grainy bass-baritone of no special distinction rather like too many French singers who have undertaken this role. Marie-Ange Todorovitch is OK as Marguerite but there is an edge in her voice and there are much better. René Schirrer is a rough, barking Brander and sounds superannuated. Casadesus’ conducting is competent, even attractive, without being especially stimulating; the Lille orchestra sound top-notch and he has an especially committed, idiomatic chorus. The sound is excellent, too, but I really cannot imagine why anyone would plump for this when there are so many better alternatives.
Sir Simon Rattle – 2017 (live; digital) LSO Live Hybrid SACD
London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus
Faust – Bryan Hymel
Méphistophélès – Christopher Purves
Marguerite – Karen Cargill
Brander – Gábor Bretz
I refer you to reviews by my colleagues John Quinn (review) and Robert Cummings (review), both of which contains much detail and a lot with which I agree. It is certainly a pleasure to hear so full a tenor as Bryan Hymel’s after too many over-refined, falsetto-biased voices in the role of Faust, but as my fellow-reviewers remark, there is also an element of strain and a constant glottal catch in his tone – however, this is live and that diminishes as Hymel settles in. He delivers a big, bold, deeply felt characterisation which could hardly be more different from, for example, Vinson Cole’s delicate Faust for Haitink. His crack on the horribly difficult, full-voiced C-sharp in the duet is unfortunate but forgivable.
I wish I found Christopher Purves’s bass-baritone more distinctive. He sings in good French but it is somewhat grey and all-purpose with indifferent top notes; there needs to be more bite and resonance in Méphistophélès’ voice of the kind Terfel and Quasthoff deliver, which adds sensuality to music such as “Voici des roses”.
I love Karen Cargill’s voice; her French is perfect and she scales down her big, vibrant sound with great subtlety. I can understand that some find the oscillation of vibrato a little wide but it does not “pulse” and has all the warmth and eroticism missing in Purves’ sound, especially when she ventures into her lower register. Is it perhaps too fruity and “knowing” to portray the ingénue Marguerite aptly? I think her restraint helps in that regard and she makes such a lovely sound that I am won over. Rattle provides her with ideal tempos in her two set pieces.
Gábor Bretz deliver a sturdy Brander but he is set rather too far back in the sound picture and his low notes could be juicier. I like the whining drunk tenors in the “Amen” fugue and the similarly nasal nuns in the “Sancta Maria” before their blood-curdling shrieks. Rattle makes a great job of the Infernal Ride and the Satanic Chorus is suitably…satanic, even if Purves’ “J’en suis maître à jamais” is too genteel.
Both the LSO choir and orchestra sound wonderful and there is no issue with the Barbican sounding dead – as has been the case in the past; the recording engineers clearly worked something out to combat that. Regular readers will know that Rattle is not among my favourite conductors but this, along with his Pelléas et Mélisande from the same year with the LSO, is one of the best things I have heard from him. Were his demon more demonic this would be among my top choices.
(You may hear this on YouTube)
John Nelson – 2019 (live; digital) Erato Warner
Orchestre Philarmonique de Strasbourg
Les Petits Chanteurs de Strasbourg, Maitrise de l’Opéra national du Rhin
Faust – Michael Spyres
Méphistophélès – Nicolas Courjal
Marguerite – Joyce DiDonato
Brander – Alexandre Duhamel
I was surprised to find that this had not been reviewed on the MWI website. Let me put my cards on the table and declare that I am not a fan of the much-lauded Joyce DiDonato, disliking her fluttering vibrato which often approaches a tremolo and a lack of true lower register in her sound; this is very evident in her solos. Nelson is yet another conductor who takes “D’amour l’ardente flamme” too slowly. Nor am I as swept away as some of my colleagues by Michael Spyre’s tenor. He is undoubtedly highly talented and the current ténor du jour, but I find some of what he does with his voice gimmicky and strained – especially the “baritenor” stuff – so approached this recording with caution. Nonetheless, he sounds good here, singing in excellent French with lots of “ping” in his sound. He begins well and later on “Nature immense” is grandly sung, if not without a degree of vocal tightness and some evidence of tiredness; but if there is a hint of constriction in those high notes, he is hardly alone in that – even if at times he is channelling Gedda…
Nicolas Courjal is not especially impressive Méphistophélès; what has happened to the true bass-baritone? Too many singers pretending to inhabit that tessitura simply do not have the depth, power and resonance to carry it off. His top notes are weak and his vibrato flaps. Being French, he is at ease with the words but that isn’t enough and at times he overacts instead of singing. Alexandre Duhamel is rather similarly voiced and is close to shouting.
The chorus is animated and gives us a great Pandaemonium but surely overdoes the nasal drone in the “Amen” fugue. The orchestra is lively – although I have hard more exciting renditions of the Marche hongroise.
As you may surmise, I do not share in the rapture which greeted this live recording. Certainly there are things about it which are fine but overall, which the possible exception of Spyres, I do not rate it among the best.
It has been a surprise to discover that several distinguished conductors here managed to make this music boring. Another issue is the difficulty of finding a recording in which all three principal singers are of equal distinction, reducing me to fantasising about “mix and match” scenarios.
Poleri, Verreau, Turp and Burrows in older recordings are the best Fausts but several modern tenors also made me sit up: Giuseppe Sabbatini in Colin Davis’ second recording, which is well-conducted but otherwise mediocre and flawed; Keith Lewis for Chung, who Is not ideally full-throated but very musical and easy on the ear – and well partnered in von Otter and Terfel; Vinson Cole for Haitink, who isn’t exactly exciting but sings very elegantly; finally Bryan Hymel for Rattle, whose timbre can be harsh and edgy but is very dramatic. I must have Ozawa for the beauty and power of Stuart Burrows’ voice, the excellence of the sound and the mastery of the conductor, his orchestra and chorus, but more apt exponents of the roles of Méphistophélès and Marguerite than Ozawa’s are to be found in Solti’s electric account. If Burrows had been Solti’s tenor that could easily have been my first choice – but if my grandmother had wheels…
The best Marguerites are unquestionably Janet Baker, Frederica von Stade, Susan Graham, Anne Sofie von Otter and Karen Cargill but the first three are partnered by tenors whom I find unsatisfactory. For the best Méphistophélès, I turn to the younger van Dam, Robert Lloyd, Bryn Terfel, Jean-Philippe Lafont and Thomas Quasthoff, who all have more saturnine heft and presence than many of the lighter-voiced exponents. The best conducting? So many; Fournet, Munch, Monteux, the young Davis, Ozawa, Solti, Nagano, Haitink – all are excellent and in that regard we are spoilt for choice; often, the involvement of the chorus can be a deciding factor, too. With so many excellent stereo/digital recordings, sound is less of an issue; very few are unsatisfactory.
I began this survey believing that any recommendation could at best be a compromise; however, one recording stands out as being the most satisfactory on all fronts, ticking more boxes than any other if I use a points system – and that is Myung-Whun Chung, my top recommendation, followed by Gardiner, Markevitch and Solti, with Fournet and Munch as historical/mono supplements.
In 1969, the postal authority in Monaco released a set of ten stamps commemorating the centenary of Berlioz’s death. Eight of them were depictions of scenes from Faust. You can see them in David Barker’s column on Classical Music in Stamps here.