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Hector BERLIOZ (1803 - 1869)
Herminie (1828)
La Mort de Cléopâtre (1829)
La Mort de Sardanapale (1830)
La Mort d’Orphée (1827)
Michele Lagrange (Soprano) - 1
Beatrice Uria-Monzon (mezzo soprano) - 2
Daniel Galvez Vallejo (tenor) – 3 & 4
Choeur Regional Nord / Pas de Calais
Orchestre Nationale de Lille, Regional Nord / Pas de Calais, conducted by Jean-Claude Casadesus.
Rec. Palais de Musique, Lille on 19th - 21st October 1994 (1 & 2) and 28th – 29th November 1995.
NAXOS 8.555810 [60’45"]

 

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 times.

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 tasted victory.

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.

John Quinn

See also review by John Phillips

 

 



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