(This review was written by Steven Sedley in conjunction with other Middle C reviewers)
Orchestra Wellington’s Faust
Robert Schumann – Scenes from Goethe’s Faust
Soloists: Emma Pearson, Wade Kernot, Christian Thurston, Jared Holt, Michaela Cadwgan, Maike Christie-Beekman, Barbara Paterson, Margaret Medlyn, Jamie Young
Marc Taddei (conductor)
St Mark’s Schola Cantorum
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
Saturday, 3 December 2022
The first performance in New Zealand of this colossal work by Schumann, was a fitting end for a season with its focus on this composer. It required vast resources, two large choirs, nine soloists, a large orchestra, and it is difficult, complex music, not immediately approachable.
Goethe’s Faust is the overpowering masterpiece of the German literature, and a number of composers tried to find musical expression of it, Berlioz in Schumann’s own time, Gounod, Boito, Mahler, Busoni and a number of others in later generations.
Goethe died a mere decade before Schumann embarked on this work and part two of his play had not been published till some years later. This explains why Schumann, who started working on Scenes from Goethe’s Faust in 1844, didn’t complete the last part until shortly before his death fourteen years later, Consequently he never heard the whole work performed.
Did the subject appeal to Schumann because he identified with Faust, the brilliant thinker, who was taken by Mephistopheles, the Devil, to be ultimately redeemed by the love of his life, Gretchen / Clara? Or did he relish the challenge of writing a major work for choir and orchestra, an oratorio, to prove that he was a significant composer with a weighty large scale work to his name? Perhaps it was a bit of both. As well, did he see his long term tertiary syphilis and his decline as parallels with Faust’s love of Gretchen and his love of Clara?
At any rate, it was a brave challenge for Orchestra Wellington, the Orpheus Choir and the Children’s Choir of St Marks, the soloists and perhaps above all, for the conductor, Mark Taddei, who having prepared this work, is unlikely to have the opportunity to perform it again any time soon.
The orchestra played at times with a beautiful lush sound, but the rhythmic precision and occasionally, intonation, was not impeccable. It is, after all, a very good part-time orchestra and can’t be compared with the great orchestras of the world available to all on YouTube or recordings.
The nine soloists acquitted themselves pretty well, all displaying a good understanding of their texts, though it wasn’t made easy for them. A raised platform in the midst of the orchestra behind the strings but ahead of the winds was not an ideal placement, even if, acoustically, one would be hard put to it to think of a better one. All had to work hard to achieve parity with the densely orchestrated instrumental sound and none really succeeded in taking command. Emma Pearson’s lyric soprano was ideal for the role of the innocent Gretchen, tenor Jared Holt was an assertive Arial and Wade Kernot’s firm, sombre tone was fine for Mephistopheles and the Evil Spirit in the Cathedral scene if not perhaps providing the last word in threatening malice. The most demanding parts were those of Faust himself and, after his death, Dr Marianus. Baritone Christian Thurston sang stylishly and well, but the interminable lines of Faust’s monologues lay rather low in his range when in contention with an orchestra that took no prisoners. The smaller parts were all taken well.
The Orpheus Choir was in fine form, as usual, especially in the Dies Irae and the young singers of the St Mark’s Schola Cantorum were bright and lively.
In the grand final section, Faust’s Transfiguration, written some years after the first two Parts, you could hear not only Goethe, but also Beethoven breathing down Schumann’s back with passages clearly recalling the earlier composer’s Choral Symphony.
Unfortunately the performance was marred by surtitles of startling ineptitude, mis-translated, misspelt, banal, ungrammatical, and in places incoherent. It would have been worse still for any audience members familiar with Goethe’s text – the Great Man must have been turning in his vault.
Still, with all its imperfections, this was a memorable performance, and, for people in Wellington an opportunity of a lifetime to hear this great work. We must be grateful to Marc Taddei and his team for daring to “think big” and bring to life one of the great masterpieces of the romantic choral repertoire.