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<<  -- 3 --  Malcolm Miller    SEEKING THE SOUL


The BBCSO was joined by the BBC Symphony Chorus and four outstanding soloists for the 'Faust Cantata' (Seid nüchtern und wachet) of 1983, which by contrast is memorably fun, gaudy and daring. The 'Faust' theme was one which occupied Schnittke throughout his career until his final unfinished opera, 'Historia von D.Johann Fausten' in which this cantata was used as a surrogate finale in its incomplete Hamburg performance of 1995. Faust Cantata has a serious message, delivered in a stylised didactic manner, through declamatory final choruses and a cappella section, and by the uniquely witty pastiche ingredient at the climax -- a seductively outrageous tango. As Susan Bradshaw observed, Schnittke here uses the 16th century text by Johann Spies whose folk stories Das Volksbuch vom Dr Faust (1587) was that which inspired Leverkuhn from Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus, a work in which Schnittke was also deeply interested. The role of narrator was incisively projected by the tenor Justin Lavender, while the low lying bass role of Faust was sung with forthright pungency by David Wilson-Johnson. Mephisto is played by both a florid counter-tenor, here the strident-toned Andrew Watts, as well as by a cabaret-style soprano, here Susan Bickley. An important role is also assigned to Faust's friends who assemble at his house on the night he is taken by Mephistopheles, brightly rendered by the BBC Symphony Chorus.

Schnittke's through-composed style is at times powerfully direct, but sometimes too direct, the chorus's declamation dramatic yet detached and almost perfunctory. Yet that detachment helps to highlight the crux of the story all the more, the gaudy tango that depicts Faust's demonic demise after he has rejected pleas for repentance, and the depiction of his mortal remains splayed over his house. Schnittke's association of the Mephisto destroyer with a cabaret tango, however questionable and simplistic, is nonetheless entertaining with its soupy outlandishly kitsch orchestration. It adds a layer of irony to the conclusion, a call to Christian conscience -- the 'be sober and attentive' of the title -- first for soloists and then for chorus, this sober moralising resuming the earlier atonality. One sensed, in its perplexing layers of meaning, Schnittke's call to a more universal compositional conscience, his constant search for an authentic voice. In its desire for a rapprochement between the so-called serious, and popular musical worlds, Schnittke's symbiosis is one which lies at the core of the post-modern aesthetic.

Copyright © 19 January 2001 Malcolm Miller, London, UK




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