Schnittke: Historia von D Johann Fausten

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Schnittke
LABELS: RCA Victor Red Seal
WORKS: Historia von D Johann Fausten
PERFORMER: Jürgen Freier, Eberhard Lorenz, Arno Raunig, Hanna Schwarz, Eberhard Büchner, Jonathan Barreto-Ramos, Christoph Johannes Wendel, Jürgen Fersch; Hamburg State Opera Chorus, Hamburg State PO/Gerd Albrecht
CATALOGUE NO: 09026 68413 2 DDD
Twenty years ago, Alfred Schnittke, then a strikingly unpredictable dissident Soviet composer, began to think seriously about setting the Faust story, not Goethe but the earlier 1587 Faust tale of Johann Spies. Yet only last year was the project finally realised; this live recording is taken from the premiere performances in Hamburg, where the composer now lives. And had Schnittke, probably the most vividly theatrical composer of orchestral music of our time, actually realised the opera in the style of his 1983 Faust Cantata – with its two Mephistopheles characters (a mezzo and a countertenor) and its bizarre, cabaret-style tango that depicts Faust’s grisly death – it might well have been a post-modern masterpiece. But Schnittke has since suffered a series of strokes, and his late style is desultory.

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The Cantata serves now as the third of the three acts, and is still a shocker. But what comes before, despite the occasionally wonderful orchestral or choral effect, is without much drama; similarly, the Wozzeck-like vocal writing is without much character. Heaven and hell are both bland places, and Faust’s lamentations try the patience. The performance, though, is strong, and the recorded sound is close-up and detailed. But what a pity the commission for the opera came too late.