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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Les francs-juges Overture [12’26"]
Waverley Overture, Op. 1 [10’24"]
Le roi Lear Overture, Op. 4 [15’57"]
Le carnaval romain Overture, Op. 9 [9’29"]
Béatrice et Bénédict Overture [8’06"]
Le corsaire Overture, Op. 21 [8’44"]
Benvenuto Cellini Overture, Op. 23 [10’07"]
Staatskapelle Dresden/Sir Colin Davis
Recorded 13-18 January, 1997, Lukaskirche, Dresden DDD
BMG RCA Red Seal 82876 65839 2 [75’15"]

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It’s very good to be able to welcome the return to the catalogue of this marvellous disc, which contains most of Berlioz’s overtures (Rob Roy is not included.) These are all tremendously original pieces and annotator Michael Steinberg is absolutely right to lament that we so rarely hear most of them in the concert hall. Here they receive wonderful advocacy from the great Dresden orchestra (on top form) conducted by the man who is surely the foremost Berlioz interpreter of our day.

From the start of the very first track you sense that the disc is going to be very special. Les francs-juges is Berlioz at his most Gothic. The portentous, sonorous brass recitative (track 1, 1’30" – 3’11") is superbly intoned. This passage always puts me in mind of the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale and the way the Dresdeners deliver it reminds me more than usual of the dark grandeur of parts of that score. It’s a tribute to Davis’s meticulous and understanding direction that every strand of Berlioz’s imaginative and highly original orchestration registers perfectly but very naturally. For example, later on (6’08" – 8’ 05") comes the extraordinary passage where a long, troubled (and troubling) wind melody is quietly and distantly sounded, accompanied at first by agitated strings underneath. Subsequently, threatening percussion underpins the melody. Davis balances all this perfectly and as a result the atmosphere of chilling menace is conveyed just as Berlioz surely intended it. This is a dark, dramatic account of a superb and unjustly neglected overture.

That performance is an accurate harbinger of what is to follow. Waverley is first class. There’s great suspense in the lengthy slow opening section and when the tempo picks up the quicker music is deftly done, with some especially delightful wind solos (track 2, 5’40" – 6’06"). Michael Steinberg aptly describes the music of Le roi Lear as "powerfully probing". That’s a description that applies equally well to Davis’s reading of the score. Like Waverley this work has a spacious introduction, which Davis shapes superbly. When the music quickens he’s suitably urgent and thrusting. He’s equally successful in Le corsaire, which is strongly projected and vividly characterised. The dazzling overture to Béatrice et Bénédict fairly sparkles in Davis’s masterly hands.

The two best-known works, Le carnaval romain and Benvenuto Cellini are meat and drink to Davis. In these Dresden performances both are bursting with colour and vitality. But though the music crackles when appropriate the lyrical side is just as tellingly done; for example the cor anglais solo in Le carnaval romain is most poetically played.

But in the presence of such fine music making further detailed comment is rather superfluous. This is an outstanding disc. Indeed, it’s one that really should never be out of the catalogue. The playing of the Staatskapelle Dresden is magnificent throughout. They are splendidly agile on the many occasions that Berlioz demands agility. Equally, time and again they prove they can play with the utmost sensitivity and refinement. There’s power a-plenty when it’s needed but my abiding memory of their playing is its wonderful lustre. They are accorded splendid sound by the BMG/RCA engineers. I should also add that the notes, by that doyen of annotators, Michael Steinberg are as stylish and informative as one would expect from that source.

Guiding the whole enterprise is the masterly hand of Sir Colin Davis. I find him uniquely satisfying as a Berlioz interpreter and this disc shows him at his perceptive and committed best. This CD is surely an essential purchase for all those who love the music of that wayward, original, exciting genius, Hector Berlioz.

Recommended urgently.

John Quinn

see also review by Jonathan Woolf

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