Busoni’s Doktor Faust, which he worked on from 1916 until his death in 1924, is quite simply my favourite opera. He shares many traits with Liszt: Busoni was, quite probably, the greatest pianist in history, and yet he came to detest the travelling virtuoso role; he was caught between nationalities, being half-German and half-Italian, and while his music adopts the best features of both cultures, he gives the impression of not quite belonging to either; he was deeply fascinated with the Faust myth, to the extent of writing his own libretto based on mediaeval sources for this, his last opera—unlike Liszt’s Faust derivations, this is not a Goethean work. Another feature of Busoni’s character seems to have been a lack of self-satisfaction: although he apparently had the mien of the uniquely accomplished, and knew that the only pianist who approached his magisterial abilities was Godowski, he shunned the showy, wrote no symphonies, only three full-size concertos, four operas of which two are one-acters, a handful of orchestral and chamber works, and a modest canon of piano music. But his music is divisive: I attended a staged performance of Doktor Faust in London in the mid-80s, and as I left, dumbfounded by the profundity of what I had just witnessed, I overheard a famous English composer remark on the insubstantiality of Busoni’s work. So, listeners, be warned—you may, or may not, get this music.
For musical material in this opera, Busoni plundered his own predominantly piano output, and there are constant references to such works as the magnificent Sonatina Secunda throughout the first hour of Doktor Faust. However, lest it be thought that this music sounds transcribed-up, it must also be said that Busoni was a brilliant orchestrator, drawing praise even from such a master of the genre as Richard Strauss, and his writing is utterly original. The present recording dates from 1959, when Sir Adrian Boult undertook the quixotic and, frankly, dubious task of producing an abridgement of the opera for concert performance. One of the most awe-inspiring elements of the opera is the unremitting and indivisible narrative arch of the Prologues, in which Faust gets to choose his demon accomplice, and is revealed as debauched, amoral, and, for all his ambitions, cowardly. This short version condenses that fifty-minute long pulverising emotional sweep into less than twenty-five minutes, and loses much of the opera’s grit. The remaining music, another two hours in the full opera, are crammed into about fifty minutes, and the recording fits on a single CD. One can argue that all the salient moments are here, and much heart-breakingly beautiful music, but to my mind this abridgement hobbles the work.
It is nonetheless wonderful to hear Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in fine youthful voice as Faust, fully eleven years before he was to record the complete work with Ferdinand Leitner for Deutsche Grammophon (4274132--not currently available); although even this later version is somewhat cut it still gives a much better impression of, in particular, the sinister and eerie Prologues (there is a current entirely complete version with Kent Nagano which runs over three hours, and even a DVD.). The other singers are noteworthy: Heather Harper as the Duchess of Parma, Richard Lewis in the challenging (his first note is a sustained high C!) and creepy role of Mephistopheles, and Ian Wallace as Wagner, Faust’s factotum. By a sad irony, Busoni did not live long enough to entirely finish the work, and his pupil Philip Jarnach rather unwillingly did his best to bring the work to a satisfactory conclusion. More recently, Busoni-scholar Adrian Beaumont provided an ending closer to Busoni’s sketches, but in this recording the Jarnach has to suffice. John Amis’s liner-notes show an authentic admiration for the opera, and are both succinct and useful.