Which Recording of La damnation de Faust Should I Buy?

The following was posted on 15 September 1997 to the newsgroup rec.music.classical.recordings by David Gable, who has kindly consented to its inclusion here. (HTML coding by Matthew B. Tepper.)

I have heard virtually every recording of Damnation:

Munch, Markevitch, Prêtre, Davis, Ozawa, Barenboim, Solti, Gardiner, Nagano.

I've never heard Dutoit, and I've never heard the live Damnation with Monteux, Crespin, and Turp, for which I have high hopes. That being said, as far as I'm concerned, Markevitch is the cream of the crop. Monteux may equal but he will never surpass Markevitch's performance. I will start right off by saying that Markevitch's recording is marred by three or four tiny but unforgivable cuts, including the orchestral postlude to Faust's first aria and the first verse of the Easter chorus. (The cuts were designed so to insure that Damnation would fit on 4 LP sides.) Nevertheless, Markevitch's performance redeems everything. A Russian conductor specializing in the French repertoire, Markevitch was a well nigh ideal Berlioz conductor. His approach is marked by a Berliozian intensity and precision that never flags. His approach is abetted by a superb and very French sounding tenor, Richard Verreau, who is every bit as passionate and committed as Markevitch. Michel Roux is the superb Mephistopheles, the best singing actor to tackle the role on records. The weakest link in the singer chain is the Marguerite of Consuela Rubio. She doesn't have the most opulent mezzo voice I've ever heard, and she has a peculiar slow vibrato that doesn't blend with Verreau's tenor. Nevertheless, she is deeply affecting and solidly musical. I wish I could persuade every admirer of Damnation to track down a copy of this recording, which has never been reissued on CD in the States. It is (or was) available in Europe on DGG: 2 CD's for the price of one.

Nearly as effective as Markevitch's, Munch's recording of Damnation is uncut, and features David Poleri's intense Faust. His timbre is close to Richard Verreau's, although Verreau has the stronger instrument. Munch's Marguerite is Suzanne Danco, who is at her charcteristic best as Marguerite. Martial Singher is the verbally subtle Méphistophélés. My main reservation about this recording is that the ensemble playing is sloppy next to the tight playing on the Markevitch set. Otherwise Munch's sweeping and passionate performance certainly works for me. As with the Markevitch, I couldn't live without this set.

The Davis set is a major disappointment. Davis takes uncharacteristically slow tempi throughout and his performance hardly seems inflected at all. Gedda, unfortunately, is caught well past his prime in the title role. This set does preserve Josephine Veasey's Callas-like intensity as Marguerite. Veasey is my favorite of all recorded Marguerites.

The Baker-Gedda-Prêtre Damnation de Faust is decently conducted, but not much more than that. It is notable mainly for the Faust of Gedda and the Marguerite of Janet Baker. Gedda is in much better voice here than on the Davis set, although the youthful bloom had already begun to fade when this EMI set was recorded circa 1970.

I don't like the Solti set much. Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Mercedes-Benz of orchestras, turn in a Mercedes-Benz performance: clean, powerful orchestral playing with a lot of momentum, but nobody exhibits any real subtletly or sympathy for the Berlioz idiom. Riegel strains as Faust.

The Ozawa set is fairly decent. Ozawa actually has some real understanding of the Berlioz idiom, and his Easter chorus is for my money the best on record. Stuart Burrows is a solidly musical and sensitive Faust, but his slow vibrato gets in the way of my enjoyment. Mathis is miscast as Marguerite, too Germanic for the role.

Barenboim is totally at sea in most Berlioz for some reason, including Faust, although Domingo is a ringing and surprisingly effective Faust. I don't like the performance-practice-of-the-90's style Damnations from Gardiner and Nagano, and neither performance is graced by singers of the calibre of Richard Verreau (Markevitch), Nicolai Gedda (Prêtre), Plácido Domingo (Barenboim), Suzanne Danco (Munch), Josephine Veasey (Davis), or Stuart Burrows (Ozawa).

David Gable

Copyright © 1997 by David Gable; reproduced here by permission.

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