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Dip Your Ears, No. 43 (Schnittke-Bach-Webern)

available at Amazon
Schnittke, Bach, Webern, Faust Cantata, Ricerar et al.,
A.Boreyko, Hamburg SO
edel / Berlin Classics 1776

I compulsively collect every piece of music that has Faust as its theme. That includes standards like Mahler’s 8th, Liszt’s Faust Symphony, Mephistophele (Boito), Faust (a.k.a. Marguerite – Gounod), and La Damnation de Faust (Berlioz), as well as works farther off the beaten path, like Busoni’s Doktor Faustus (unfortunately, I lost my copy and Warner took their excellent and literally unrivaled recording with Nagano out of the catalogue), Spohr’s Faust, or Nadia Boulanger’s Faust et Hélene. Also among the lesser-known works is Alfred Schnittke’s Historia von Dr. Johann Fausten, a riotous, crazy, and lovable work. The only recording seems not available, much to my dismay. But there is the patch – and more than that. Schnittke, this still much under-appreciated “polystilistik” composer who deserves everyone’s ear, spun the opera out of his Faust Cantata, his most important religious/musical statement. Like the other Germanocentric composers (Spohr, Busoni) Schnittke does not dare (?) tackle the overwhelming Goethe treatment of the subject but instead the earlier German tale printed by Spieß. (Busoni’s is based on the old puppet play, Spohr’s on Joseph Carl Bernhard’s.)

Faust isn’t a hero in that version – he’s a warning example. That is part of the reason why Faust is a baritone (Andreas Schmidt) while the speaker is a tenor (Justine Lavender ) – like in Bach’s passions. Mephisto is split between countertenor (when in disguise and charming - Matthias Koch) and an alto (when revealed and malevolent - Marina Prudenskaya) to creepy, eerie effect. The night-scene of Faust’s death is a fin-de-siècle conjuring ghastly tango of doom and likely the most immediately appealing part of the 40-minute work. It is very appropriately framed by two Bach chorales. The encore, if you wish – as this was a live performance, although you’d never know from the total lack of audience noises - is Anton Webern’s Ricerar, his orchestration of Bach’s Ricerata a 6 voci from Die Kunst der Fuge. Webern and Schoenberg understood Bach like few other composers, and what Webern does to the austere fugue is a miracle on top of the wonder that is Bach. It’s a bit like what Kurusawa’s Throne of Blood is to Shakespeare’s Lear (only much closer to the original). Like a film that gains in translation, structures and strands become clearer and visible while the work does not suffer but gains in coherence. I played this devilishly difficult 10-minute delight (it’s a challenge to every woodwind section and the players of the Hamburger Symphoniker under Andrey Boreyko do particularly well) four times in a row on first hearing.

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