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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Te Deum (1855) [57.40]
Roberto Alagna (tenor)
Marie-Claire Alain (Cavaillé-Coll grand orgue, La Madeleine)
Choeur d'enfants de l'Union Européene et Maîtrise d'Antony
Choeur et Orchestre de Paris/John Nelson
rec. 19-20 February 2001, Salle de la Mutualité, Paris;
EMI CLASSICS 5034072 [57.40]


This recording of the Berlioz Te Deum has a lot going for it. Berlioz specialist John Nelson conducts with many distinguished artists including Marie-Claire Alain in the important organ part. Unfortunately they were not all in the same place at the same time. The recording was made in the Salle de la Mutualité in Paris whilst Marie-Claire Alain played the organ of the Madeleine. The recording was first issued in 2001 and is now re-issued.

Now technical wizardry is such that the resulting recording is both musical and believable. But Berlioz wrote the piece for a specific type of venue: a large French church with the choir and orchestra at the altar end of the nave and the organist playing the Grande Orgue at the far end of the nave. This means that the opening alternation of chords between orchestra and organ should take place over a wide expanse of space. Here we do not get any real feeling of distance. The organ sounds as if it is placed in or beside the orchestra. This might not bother everyone, but I'm afraid it bothered me.

Berlioz premièred the work at the church of St. Eustache in 1855 on the eve of the inauguration of the Universal Exhibition held in Paris that year. Journalistic response was very positive but even then there was talk of whether the work was designed to be performed in a church, whether fitting nearly 1000 people in the building was suitable and whether the music was too secular.

The Te Deum is curiously scored: two choirs of soprano, tenor and bass, children's choir and large orchestra and organ. Berlioz included the children's choir in the score after hearing a large choir of foundlings singing in London.

There is no obvious origin to the piece, but Berlioz may have been influenced by the choral masses he heard in Russia. With its instrumental prelude and march for the presentation of colours, this work has clear links with the processional pieces popular in France at the period, including his own Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale. The result combines moments of great transparency and delicacy with serious bombast.

Listening to this recording I was again brought back to the issue of location and ambience. The orchestra is recorded with a detail and clarity which displays Berlioz's orchestration most beautifully. But the chorus can sound recessed, particularly in the quieter moments when the choir could have had more presence. I did wonder what size of choir the piece had been recorded with. The choral tone is focused but lacks the amplitude of an extremely large choir. At times the sopranos' tone can get rather hard when they reach the top of the stave. But overall the choir sing with a good sense of line and a nice clear and centred choral tone.

The children's chorus sing with a firm throaty sound but like the main choir, they seem overly recessed. On the other hand there were various moments when I felt the piece was too closely recorded. I longed for more atmosphere though the results are admirably detailed.

In the solo movement Roberto Alagna provides a good firm line and strong tone. His voice is very Italianate and I could imagine other tenors singing with more transparent and more French-inflected results.

John Nelson's view of the Te Deum emphasises the work's extremes. The quiet moments are nicely contemplative and the loud moments are extremely bombastic. Nelson has a good ear for the orchestration and brings it out on the modern instruments of the Orchestre de Paris. It no longer sounds particularly French but the music of Berlioz fits it well and the playing of the orchestra is both stylish and suave.

I liked this recording. It works well on modern instruments. But there were moments when I would have wanted to hear the piece played with the greater transparency that comes with the use of period instruments. Alas, currently there is no such recording in the catalogue. The other most recommendable recordings are those by Colin Davis: the classic one with the LSO and a more recent one with Dresden forces.

This is a slightly short-playing disc at just 57 minutes. It would have been nice if the group could have recorded at least one of Berlioz's overtures or occasional pieces. The booklet does not give us the text of the Te Deum but it does offer a substantial article on the work.

A highly recommendable recording, which captures something of the large scale of Berlioz's creation.

Robert Hugill


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