Berlioz: La damnation de Faust

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

WORKS: La damnation de Faust
PERFORMER: Giuseppe Sabbatini, Enkelejda Shkosa, Michele Pertusi, David Wilson-Johnson; LSO & Chorus/Colin Davis
This new Damnation, in the LSO Live Colin Davis Berlioz cycle, unexpectedly disappoints. Not that Davis has lost his grip: the score is presented with tremendous vividness by orchestra and chorus, the latter’s occasional coarseness being calculated characterisation. If a few conductor’s moans surge up through quieter textures, that is all part of the joyous patina; and the dark side is represented in the magnificent grotesque so typical of French Romanticism (think Hugo and Quasimodo) in the thrilling ‘Ride to the Abyss’. It is not good, however, that his strangled death-cry is Sabbatini’s finest hour as Faust. In his ‘Invocation’ – Berlioz’s most original movement in a stunningly inventive score – Sabbatini’s incessant sforzando is hard to bear; elsewhere he scoops and excitedly stabs the declamation, a technique which spares him having to find the pitch; his suicide scene is ignobly tremulous (compare the master, Gedda, under both Davis and Prêtre). Alas, he is matched by Shkosa’s Marguerite, sometimes painfully out of tune despite her unpleasingly heavy vibrato: no competition for Baker (Prêtre) and von Otter (Chung). Pertusi’s Mephistopheles stands up tolerably well in comparison to Terfel (Chung), Bastin (the earlier Davis) and Cachemaille (Dutoit). I offer as benchmark Nagano; the forces from Lyon match the excellent LSO, and though Graham is not the top Marguerite, the sensitive Moser as Faust and van Dam’s devil make the best all-round team. The new recording suffers from a dry ambience, leaving those silences which punctuate this explosive score, well, silent, rather than atmospheric. Julian Rushton