Goethe's Faust exerted a powerful influence on Romantic composers, offering Robert Schumann a number of unforgettable scenes drawn mainly from the mystical second part of the epic poem which he incorporated into this immensely moving large-scale cantata. Opening with the first love scene between Gretchen and Faust and concluding with the climactic scene of Faust's redemption, Schumann created a sweeping panorama of dramatic episodes with Mephistopheles' trickery ultimately overcome as legions of celestial beings bear Faust's soul to heaven.
Schumann worked on his Scenes from Faust for some nine years, from 1847 until just before his attempted suicide. It contains some of his finest dramatic music, especially the large continuous scenes in Part 2, and because the orchestra spends most of its time accompanying the singers, the problem of his thick and monochrome late scoring doesn't ruin the enjoyment. Indeed, there are some lovely instrumental touches throughout the work: the eerie flutes and piccolo at the start of Part 2's Midnight scene (shades of Mendelssohn, only spookier); the stabbing, syncopated horn rhythms in Faust's death scene; and the delicate writing for harp in Part 3 at 'Höchste Herrscherin der Welt'. The work has not lacked for champions, including Benjamin Britten and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, but this new performance is as fine as any yet recorded.
Antoni Wit has at his disposal an excellent chorus and a very fine orchestra. He unclogs Schumann's textures by having timpani play with hard sticks and by encouraging the brass to play with a characterful, unblended sonority. Trumpets, horns, and trombones retain their special timbre, especially in pianissimo, while the woodwinds color the string parts that they so often merely double. Wit's tempos flow with unforced naturalness and real excitement where called for. The concluding Chorus Mysticus (Wit chooses Schumann's original version) really takes off at its 'Lebhaft' second half.
Best of all, Wit has an outstanding lineup of soloists. Christiane Libor sings Gretchen (later Una Poenitentium and Not) with a really beautiful, steady tone. Her Church scene, with Andrew Gangestad's suave Mephistopheles, is gripping. Jaakko Kortekangas makes an excellent Faust/Doctor Marianus. Faust's death is deeply moving, and in Part 3 he gets the lines that Mahler later assigned to a tenor, and it works just as well (better in this context, of course). He's a pleasure to listen to.
The Naxos engineers capture the whole production in sonics of great warmth, clarity, and naturalness. It may be that Schumann's Faust will never regain its 19th century popularity, but it contains some wonderful music, and this version will be hard to beat. --ClassicsToday.com, David Hurwitz, February 21, 2011