Berlioz: La damnation du Faust

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

LABELS: Challenge Classics
WORKS: La damnation de Faust
PERFORMER: Charlotte Margiono (soprano), Vinson Cole (tenor), Thomas Quasthoff (baritone), Jaco Huijpen (bass); Netherlands Radio Chorus & Philharmonic Orchestra/Bernard Haitink

Berlioz’s quirky take on Goethe has attracted a great many recordings, from Charles Munch and Igor Markevitch to Sir Colin Davis – almost all of them good. Bernard Haitink, less directly associated with Berlioz, needs to make his mark that much more strongly, and on the whole he succeeds.
This applause-heavy live recording is orchestral quicksilver, vividly detailing those tiny rhythmic intricacies the composer delights in, yet without shirking the epic and Romantic. The ‘Marche Hongroise’ delights the audience, the ‘Menuet des follets’ is as bright as Beecham’s, and Marguerite’s music heartfelt. After that, though, Part II’s ‘Nature immense’ lacks real expanse, and the climactic Ride to the Abyss and Pandaemonium seem correspondingly rather light, not just against firebrands like Georg Solti, but Georges Prêtre or Colin Davis.
Haitink’s singers, though, notably veteran Vinson Cole’s Faust, improve on Davis’s latest, and on many others too. Charlotte Margiono is a touching Marguerite, without equalling the heartbreaking quality of Janet Baker for Prêtre, Susan Graham’s luxuriant tone for Nagano, or Anne Sofie von Otter’s three excellent versions. Thomas Quasthoff’s is an even finer Mephistopheles, though José van Dam (for both Solti and Nagano) is better still.
Recommending any one recording presents problems. Davis’s splendid first performance now seems dimly recorded, Gardiner’s original-instrument version is limited, and only Solti’s DVD is available, where La Fura dels Baus’s surreal staging (also Arthaus) also has claims. Nagano and Prêtre, slow but well cast and coupled, are about the best, with Haitink an airy alternative. Michael Scott Rohan