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Recapturing a revolution

By Thor Eckert Jr. / February 2, 1983

New York

It is often hard to imagine the effect a radical or revolutionary piece must have had on the world-premiere audience. Even the impact of as stormy a work as Stravinsky's ''Le Sacre du Printemps'' has been blunted now that it has the repertoire status of a Tchaikovsky symphony , and even student orchestras can play it expertly.

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This thought was running through my mind at a performance of Berlioz's ''La Damnation de Faust'' in Carnegie Hall last week. Seiji Ozawa was leading the Boston Symphony, and the cast was for the most part a strong one - Nicolai Gedda as Faust, Thomas Stewart as Mephistopheles, and Frederica von Stade as Marguerite, with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, prepared by John Oliver.

Berlioz's work is neither opera nor oratorio. It is a highly personal, stunningly inventive sound-study, in which Berlioz has synthesized the moods of the Goethe text (rather too freely for the score's detractors), and successfully translated those moods into full narrative form by means of voice and orchestra. And though opera directors have often wrestled with the theatrical element in the score, ''Damnation'' remains not stage theater, but rather mind theater.

The music preys thrillingly on the listener's musical imagination, painting vivid pictures, sustaining ethereal moods. The terrifying all-senses assault in the horseback ride to Hell finds Berlioz inventing his own chilling nonsense-syllable language, and using the full orchestra to create an unprecedented pandemonium that even today can be harrowing in the extreme. The concluding redemption scene goes effortlessly to the heart, because the entire work considers religious as well as temporal matters.

What one wants in a performance of this 2 1/2-hour score is a sense of a maestro who had pondered long and deeply about Berlioz's intentions, about just what it was that made the score so radical in its day and makes it so communicative in ours.

It would be nice if the listener could emerge with a complete sense of the ground-breaking nature of the score, the feeling that the colossal scope of vision was captured. The incredible contrasts between moods, from the drive of the ''Rakoczi March'' through the delicate sinuousness of the ''Dance of the Sylphs,'' on to the internal anguish of Marguerite's big aria, ''D'amour l'ardente flamme,'' right on to the chaos of ''Pande-monium'' and the upliftment of Marguerite's apotheosis, are all crucial to the ultimate success of a performance.

Daniel Baren-boim and his Orchestre de Paris achieved all of the above in ''The Damnation'' - and then some - when he brought his orchestra to these shores several years ago. He also brought along the Orchestre de Paris chorus and superb soloists, especially Jessye Norman as Marguerite. Her performance was a revelation in an already astounding evening - for she had the voice to ride orchestral climaxes, with the control to render the most intimate moments with a haunting internal quality.

Two seasons back in the same work, Sir Georg Solti and his Chicago Symphony were dazzling, for both the warmth of the conductor's work (a rarity for him) and the utter brilliance with which the orchestra executed every last detail. There was not a moment too quiet for this orchestra, or too loud. If one admired Berlioz's unique vision with Barenboim, one was awe-struck by the orchestrational skill with which the composer achieved that vision in the Solti performance. Jose van Dam was the superbly insinuating Mephistopheles with Solti , and Kenneth Riegel the well-intentioned Faust. Miss von Stade was stirred to great intimate heights by the maestro in a part for which she is not ideal.