Robert Schumann’s setting of scenes from Goethe’s Faust does not get performed as often as it should, despite being one of the composer’s finest works (or, more accurately, a collection of works). Goethe’s play is notoriously zany. The basic underlying story line was an easy topic for composers to portray in music, but the metaphysical aspects were a bigger challenge. Schumann attempted just that, taking only select scenes, never meant to be staged, yet encapsulating the tension and drama. He began composition with the final scene (the same scene set by Mahler in his Eighth Symphony – indeed, anticipating Mahler but in Schumann’s mid-19th Century musical language) and then picked an assortment of scenes, composed in spurts and without necessarily trying to always match the same style) before concluding with an overture. This means that in some ways this piece starts with the most simple scenes set to the most complex music, and as the scenes get more and more detached from the realm of reality, the music becomes simpler and more traditional.
The protagonists tonight in Vienna’s Konzerthaus were the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and the intelligent young British star conductor Daniel Harding (a protégé of Rattle in Birmingham and later Abbado in Berlin, and who I thought should have gotten the job in Berlin earlier this year; although he regularly guest conducts the world’s best orchestras, he has yet to land a top-tier job – I last saw him last year at the helm of his current orchestra, that of the Swedish Radio). Harding understood Schumann’s intentions, and led a masterful performance. No staging was necessary – indeed, probably would have detracted – but drama showed in abundance. The Symphoniker produced a full sound at just the right levels, with virtuoso solo playing when Schumann brought different instruments into the spotlight.
Christian Gerhaher portrayed the troubled title role (and Pater Seraphicus and Dr. Marianus) with dignity and a warm baritone. Christiane Karg, as Gretchen, elevated the soprano lead. Bass Alastair Miles produced a dark and devilish Mephistopheles. And the supporting cast proved excellent as well, all of them acting out roles that could not be acted. The adults of the Singakademie and the Staatsoper Opera School youth chorus supplied a sumptuous choral backdrop.