Given the current state of parts of the recording
industry it’s no great surprise (but a disappointment, nonetheless)
that so few CDs have been issued to mark the bi-centenary of the
birth of Hector Berlioz. This present, fascinating disc is not
new, as the recording dates confirm. In fact it was previously
issued by Harmonia Mundi (HMC 90 1542). Its return to the catalogue
at super budget price is very welcome.
Keith Anderson’s valuable liner note explains
that the Prix de Rome was established in the Napoleonic era. The
prize was most attractive for the winning composer was enabled
to stay for two years in the Villa Medici in Rome where he could
devote himself to study and composition in ideal surroundings.
I think Mr. Anderson is putting it mildly when he comments that
there was "a conservative formality about the Prix."
In fact, when judging entries the French musical establishment
seems to have gone out of its collective way to favour tradition,
adherence to textbook principles and convention at the expense
of innovation, flair and imagination. In particular, those candidates
who made it through to the second and final round of the competition
were faced with rules, which were as strict as they were restrictive.
Second round candidates were required to compose a vocal scena
to a set text within a period of 25 days during which they were
effectively confined to their quarters. To judge by the texts
of the works recorded here the words alone would have been sufficient
to stifle enterprise. In short, this was just the sort of scenario
likely to be least conducive to success by a maverick like Berlioz.
However, this did not prevent him from entering the contest five
When he first entered in 1826 he didn’t even
get through to the second, compositional round. What we have here
are the entries that he submitted in the second round over the
following four years. His 1827 effort, La Mort d’Orphée
did not impress the judges but in the following year Herminie
gained him the second prize. By established precedent Berlioz
could have confidently expected that the award to him of second
prize would be an assurance of victory the following year. However,
the judges in 1829 found La Mort de Cléopâtre
excessively bold and it was not until 1830 that Berlioz finally
Given the conditions of the competition perhaps
it should not surprise us that none of the works on this CD represent
Berlioz at his very best. Having said that there is still much
here to stir the interest of the listener.
La Mort d’Orphée (track 4) opens
with some characteristically transparent nature painting in the
orchestra (the sound-world of the Royal Hunt and Storm
is not too far away). From his very first entry tenor Daniel Galvez
Vallejo commands attention. He has an ideal voice for French heroic
repertoire, silver-toned and with a splendid ring. He has just
the right degree of nasal tone (but not too much) to produce the
forward projection and heady clarity which the French language
requires of singers. I should love to hear him in some of Berlioz’s
great tenor roles.
As to the music, the dissonant brass chords before
the Bacchanale begins (track 4, 6’29") would, alone, be sufficient
to explain why the piece failed to find favour with the judges.
The Bacchanale itself foreshadows the amazing music of La Damnation
de Faust. Here Berlioz whips up a real musical storm, departing
from the set text in the process. The purely orchestral ending
is a marvellous early example of Berlioz’s extraordinary and original
mastery of orchestration. The piece as a whole is uneven but fascinating.
Herminie and La Mort de Cléopâtre
have been reasonably well served in the recording studio,
not least by Dame Janet Baker who recorded both, thrillingly,
as part of Sir Colin Davis’s Philips Berlioz cycle. Herminie
begins with a familiar sound – the theme that was to become
the idée fixe of the Symphonie Fantastique. It
appears first on the violins but recurs at several other points
during the piece. Michèle Lagrange is a splendid, passionate
soloist. She has a vibrant chest register which she employs to
good effect in her opening recitative. The upper register of her
voice is no less impressive. She has three short arias to sing,
each preceded by a short recitative. I wouldn’t say that any of
this music is especially memorable, though Lagrange sings with
impressive fervour and makes a fine job of the whole work. She
is especially effective (and affecting) in the closing Prière
(track 1 from 15’31"), which comprises, by some distance,
the best music in the piece. The text for this section is pretty
second rate but Berlioz transforms it with supplicatory music
in which emotion is barely suppressed. Unfortunately the closing
lines of the text lead him to write a more overtly dramatic conclusion,
which isn’t really convincing. (I doubt Berlioz himself was convinced.)
La Mort de Cléopâtre is the
most familiar of these four works. As I’ve mentioned, Berlioz
must have expected to win the prize that year but it was not to
be. His piece disturbed the judges and in the end they did not
award a prize at all in 1829. In this performance Béatrice
Uria-Monzon is just as effective a soloist as her two colleagues.
She has a full tone and is capable of producing some melting quiet
notes as well as projecting strongly and dramatically when required.
Once again, the piece contains premonitions of music to come:
for example, the soloist has a phrase (track 2, 4’17"), which
listeners will recognise from the Roman Carnival overture.
It is heard again later in the piece. The climax is the Méditation
in which Cleopatra contemplates her approaching self-inflicted
death (track 2, from 9’37"). Here both the vocal line and
the orchestral accompaniment are vivid, superbly histrionic and
highly original. With hindsight it’s easy to understand that this
music would have disconcerted the judges (goodness knows what
they made of the spare and desolate last few pages.) The performance
on this disc is excellent and burns with conviction.
La Mort de Sardanapale was the work with
which Berlioz finally achieved his goal. Unfortunately, and ironically,
the score is the only one of his four entries, which has not survived
– Berlioz destroyed it – but a fragment was later found. This
surviving element is recorded here, prefaced by a recitation of
the second and third verses of the set aria (the reciter is uncredited.)
Daniel Galvez Vallejo is once again a most effective soloist.
The fragment is really too brief to permit any significant evaluation
of the music but it’s good to have it included.
I’m conscious that I’ve mentioned the music and
the soloists but have neglected the other performers. The chorus
sings well and the orchestral playing is very good indeed. Jean-Claude
Casadesus (the nephew of the pianist, Robert Casadesus, I believe)
conducts with taste, vigour and flair and seems to have a very
good instinct for Berlioz style. The recorded sound is first rate.
The notes, as I’ve indicated, are both interesting and informative
(they’re supplied in English and German) and Naxos also supply
full French texts with English translation.
As an ardent admirer of the music of Berlioz
I’m ashamed to admit that I missed these recordings first time
round so I am delighted to be able to welcome them back to the
catalogue. Any lover of this brilliantly individual composer should
investigate this issue without delay.
A splendid and enterprising issue, which usefully
expands our understanding of Berlioz. This CD is well worth seeking
out and I recommend it heartily.
See also review
by John Phillips