There can be few works in the modern repertoire that walk the fine line between grotesque comedy and psychological menace as well as Alfreds Schnittkes Faust Cantata. And with a huge orchestra, choir and soloists veering from parodies of Baroque Passions to cabaret vocals you get an astonishing musical experience.
Schnittke composed his Faust Cantata in 1982-83. His inspiration was Thomas Manns 1947 novel Doktor Faustus. But for his libretto he reached further back, to Johann Spiess Historia von D. Johann Fausten of 1587. The works structure also looked back to Schtzs and JS Bachs Passion narratives, although in inverted form, as this cantata tells the fate of a wicked man condemned to hell.
Vassily Sinaisky displayed supreme mastery over the vast forces under his baton, directing the players with hushed reverence in the more reflective baroque passages, and relishing the camp high jinks of the more macabre episodes. The orchestra, which featured electric guitars and drum kit, was matched by a splendid BBC Symphony Chorus, whose German diction was precise and always audible. The four soloists, too, could not have been bettered tenor Robert Murray as the pseudo-Evangelist narrator, baritone Mark Stone as the voice of Faust himself, and mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley and counter-tenor David Hansen in the shared role of Mephistopheles. Bickley was superb in the mocking tango of the seventh movement (Es geschah), in which she sang through a microphone of Fausts horrific death.
For the first half of the programme, Sinaisky and the BBC SO went back more than a century to another minor master work of Russian music, Tchaikovskys Symphony No. 1 in G minor. Subtitled Winter Daydreams, the symphony is best listened to without the half-formed programmatic titles which the composer added to the first two movements. Instead, it is more rewarding to focus on the remarkably sophisticated structures he devised for the opening Allegro and ensuing Adagio, and for the fragments of future symphonic themes. Listen carefully, and you can hear the musical embryos of his fourth, fifth and sixth symphonies. Sinaisky clearly loves this symphony, and his affection inspired some beautiful playing from the orchestra, with especially fine strings and woodwind. Their playing of the second movement pleased him so much that it elicited a congratulatory clap.
The concert will be broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Monday 28 February, at 19.00.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk