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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Les francs-juge Overture (1836) [12.26]
Waverley Overture Op.1 (1828) [10.24]
Le roi Lear Overture Op.4 (1831) [15.57]
Le carnaval romain Overture Op.9 (1844) [9.29]
Béatrice et Bénédict Overture (1862) [8.06]
Le corsaire Overture Op. 21 (1844) [8.44]
Benvenuto Cellini Overture Op.23 (1838) [10.07]
Dresden Staatskapelle Orchestra/Colin Davis
Recorded Lukaskirche, Dresden, January 1997
RCA RED SEAL 82876 658392 [75.15]

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Whilst not differing greatly in matters of detail and conception Davis’s Dresden recordings of the Berlioz overtures show a lyrical ambiguity and tonal complexity that sometimes outshine his 1960s London traversals. Partly this is to do with the rich and dark texture of the Dresden strings, as it is with the exalted wind principals of that orchestra but it’s also to do with the shapely care with which Davis sculpts the line, the acute judgement of dynamic curvature in this music. These are not works that necessarily reveal their full and troubling wholeness at breakneck virtuoso speed, nor do they respond well to over-sluggish scrupulousness. But Davis steers a practised course between these two extremes and the results are masterful. As of course one would expect of him in this repertoire.

One of the most notable and distinguishing features of the Dresden orchestra’s playing can be heard in Les francs-juge Overture. Here the warm, middle voicings of the string section are heard at their most eloquent; no less the rounded brass and the razor-sharp percussion. As a performance this is livelier and punchier than Beecham’s more aristocratic panache and charm; it has buoyancy a-plenty and Davis’ understanding of and instinct for the lyrical heart of the music is matched by his awareness of the need for cumulative dramatic drive. This is again true of the Waverley Overture, again tauter than Beecham’s more grand-seignorial approach, though Beecham’s is a recording I particularly admire. Davis however gets those evocative mists just right and lights the fire of the ripe strings with aplomb. I was interested that his approach to Le roi Lear is relatively restrained but don’t be deceived by the superficially leisurely languor of the opening; this has commensurate power and a sense of ominous undertaking throughout.

Not for Davis the coruscating intensity of Munch in Le carnival romain Overture. Davis cleaves to the Beecham model in matters of tempo relation and not everyone necessarily wants Munch’s scintillating vitesse all the time. Other approaches work just as well. The balletic grace of the Béatrice et Bénédict Overture is well founded – elegance and sparkling winds to the fore coupled with a commensurate lightness of string articulation elevate this performance pretty much to the top of the recommended lists. And if Le Corsaire can sound a mite becalmed alongside the two senior Berlioz conductors already mentioned then there are compensations in the brass section’s rounded strength. In Benvenuto Cellini Overture he takes what sounds to me like a pretty ideal tempo and bathes the overture in the pallor of refined, not unambiguous elegance. This is a very difficult work to pull off successfully and has defeated many a practised baton – but not Davis.

The recording quality suits the warmth of the bronzed strings and the term Classic Library for this series does well-merited accolade for these powerfully understanding performances.

Jonathan Woolf



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