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long ago superseded by complete versions of the opera, Cléopâtre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
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,
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.