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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Roméo et Juliette, Symphonie dramatique, Op.17 (H79) (1839, rev. 1847)*
CD 1: Parts 1-3 [51:47]
Part 4 – La Reine Mab [7:53]
CD 2: Part 4 (remainder) and Finale [36:16]
Les Nuits d’Été, Op.7 (1840)**
Vilanelle [2:22]
Le Spectre de la Rose [7:53]
Sur les lagunes [5:38]
Absence [5:28]
Au cimetière [6:08]
L’île inconnue [3:56]
*Jessye Norman (soprano); John Aler (tenor); Simon Estes (bass)
The Westminster Choir; Philadelphia Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
**Janet Baker (mezzo)
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
rec. *Memorial Hall, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, 25-28 January 1986. DDD; ** No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, August, 1969. ADD
Booklet with notes but no texts
EMI CLASSICS GEMINI 2176402 [59:40 + 67:41] 

 

Experience Classicsonline


The sub-title of the Gemini series, ‘The EMI Treasures’, certainly applies to Janet Baker’s version of Les Nuits d’Été which, in its earlier incarnation on the EMI Studio label, has been a treasured part of my collection for a long time.  I’m completely sold on this part of the new Gemini set, therefore, from the start – this version of Nuits is a classic, perhaps even more than the Crespin account of a slightly earlier vintage. 
 

About this version of Roméo et Juliette I’m less sure: it hasn’t crossed my radar before, though Muti’s Symphonie Fantastique was well thought of, so I begin by wondering whether EMI are yoking unequals together here, as they did when the identical coupling was employed on a Double Forte release, to compete with Colin Davis’s well-received and inexpensive LSO Live coupling of Roméo by offering more music for your money.  The all-Baker coupling, with La Mort de Cléopâtre and two excerpts from Les Troyens seems no longer to be available, though copies of its most recent incarnation (5627892) may still be around and you can buy it for £7.99 as a 256k mp3 download from iTunes or amazon.co.uk. 

While the operatic items on that all-Baker CD were long ago superseded by complete versions of the opera, Cléopâtre was surely worthy of reissue.  With a little judicious manoeuvring, surely its 21 minutes could have been fitted on here – whereas the older Studio CD ran to 77:32, the first CD of the present set is short-ish value by modern standards.  Janet Baker’s Cléopâtre is the fill-up on the Gemini recording of La Damnation de Faust (3814932) but I don’t want that version of Faust because I already have the preferable LSO Live Davis version.  The earlier coupling having disappeared, EMI have painted prospective purchasers of its contents into the corner of having to buy two 2-CD sets.  Christopher Howell faced the same conundrum with that other Gemini coupling – see review – though Robert Hugill was less exasperated – see review. 

Thumbs very much up for the Janet Baker component, then – indeed, this would be an undoubted Bargain of the Month if it had re-united the two halves of her CD. 

Is the Roméo et Juliette coupling worthy to sit beside Nuits?  When the LSO Live version with Colin Davis is so good and so competitive in price (LSO 0003: awarded four stars by Peter Grahame Woolf back in 2000 – see review) and nothing better has come along since, that has to be the benchmark for any new or reissued version.  You can find that 2-CD set for around £9 from online dealers, very little, if any, more than the price at which those same retailers are offering the Gemini reissue. 

There is also strong competition from Davis’s earlier performance on Philips Duo, more generous than the LSO Live in that it couples five Berlioz overtures, of which Terry Barfoot wrote ‘there are but a few caveats in the way of an unequivocal recommendation’ – see review.  Incredibly, it appears that this set is no longer available, but it is well worth searching out remainders or second-hand copies or downloading it from Universal’s classics and jazz website (4705432, wma or mp3 @ £9.99). 

I have to admit that Roméo is not my favourite Berlioz work.  Though a fervent admirer of the Symphonie fantastique, Harold in Italy, Symphonie funèbre, Requiem, Faust, Te Deum and even that under-rated pendant to the Symphonie fantastique, Lélio, I’m not sure that there’s enough good music in Roméo to sustain my interest across an hour and a half.  Until the Colin Davis LSO Live set came along to tempt me with its price advantage, I’d been content with Charles Dutoit’s excellent performance of the three orchestral items with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal: formerly Decca 425 001-2 with the Symphonie funèbre, worth looking out for remainders and second-hand copies.  Why has Dutoit’s Berlioz been banished to the odd overture on ‘best of’ and ‘ultimate chill out’ collections? 

It is possible to programme just the orchestral items on the Gemini recording: CD1, track 1, the Introduction (not normally performed as part of orchestral selections, but very effective music), tracks 6-9, with just the unobtrusive chorus in Ohe! Capulets! (track 7), usually played by the orchestra alone in performances like Dutoit’s.  Heard on their own, these items are more than acceptable.  The Philadelphia Orchestra play very well, though without the last degree of that special something which led to the Montreal orchestra under Dutoit being described as the best French orchestra in the world.  Muti takes Roméo seul (track 5) and the festivities at the Capulets, Grande fête chez Capulet (tr.6) at almost exactly the same pace as Dutoit (Decca, tr.4) and is almost as successful in conveying the beauty and serenity of the quieter moments and the bustle of the preparation for the festivities.  Both are within a few seconds of Davis’s timing on LSO Live. 

Muti’s Scène d’amour (trs.7 and 8) is again taken at much the same pace as Dutoit (Decca, tr.5) – loving every detail of the music but not too sedate – and the Scherzo: la Reine Mab (tr.9) is almost exactly as delicately sprightly as his (Decca, tr.6).  Berlioz was surely right to say that the love scene counted as some of his best music; it is possible to linger just a little too long over it, though Davis on LSO Live gets away with a slower tempo – slower even than his Philips version – as did Gianandrea Noseda with the BBC Philharmonic at the Proms in 2006.  Noseda also took a little longer than anyone else over the Scherzo, yet still managed to bring out all its liveliness.  The BBC should seriously consider issuing this performance of a slightly extended 58-minute five-section orchestral version, with the addition of the Introduction and a concluding section Romeo at the tomb of the Capulets, even if only as the cover-mount for their magazine. 

I suspect that the presence of Jessye Norman will be a considerable selling-point for this Gemini reissue but, in truth, the part of Juliet is small and that of Romeo almost incidental. What little they have is well enough sung by Norman (Strophes, CD1, tr. 3) and John Aler and the Westminster Choir perform the parts for the chorus well enough, too.  Simon Estes, too, as Friar Lawrence, acquits himself well – movingly, indeed – in his Récitatif (CD2, tr.8). 

There’s nothing much to be really critical of, then, but the performance as a whole, despite a rousing account of the conclusion (CD2, tr.9) didn’t alter my somewhat lukewarm attitude to the music; I think it needs Colin Davis to do that.  If you buy the set for the sake of Janet Baker, I don’t think you’ll be too disappointed, but I predict that you’ll listen most often to her five tracks at the end of CD2.  I’m not even going to try to put into words the magic of the music of Nuits d’Été and of her singing, in which she is even more ably abetted by Barbirolli than in Elgar’s Sea Pictures, where, together, they magically make second-rate Elgar worth hearing (EMI 5568062 or 5628862, with Jacqueline du Pré’s superb version of the Cello Concerto, or in a 5-CD budget box of Elgar, 3679182). 

The ADD recording of Les nuits d’été is still more than acceptable – if anything, I preferred it to the DDD recording of Roméo. 

The notes in the Gemini booklet are somewhat minimal and there are no texts, but the text and score of Roméo and a more detailed synopsis than the booklet offers are readily available online, as are the Gautier poems which Berlioz set in Les nuits d’été.

Brian Wilson





 


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