> BERLIOZ songs Veronique Gens VC545222 [CC]: Classical Reviews- January 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-69)
Les nuits d’été. La mort de Cléopâtre. La captive. La belle voyageuse. Zaïde.

Véronique Gens (soprano); Lyon National Opera Orchestra/Louis Langrée.
Recorded in Opéra National, Lyon on January 28th-29th, 2000 (Cléopâtre) and in Auditorium Maurice Ravel on February 1st-3rd, 2001 (other works). [DDD]
VIRGIN CLASSICS VC5 45422-2 [61.17]


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Véronique Gens here joins the exalted ranks of Régine Crespin and Janet Baker for top placing in recordings of Berlioz’ Les nuits d'été, and certainly comes top of the list for modern recordings. It goes without saying that her French is impeccable (her diction is a model), but she is so obviously attuned to Berlioz’s perfumed sounds that comparisons while listening become almost irrelevant (and there is little higher praise than this). Her voice is not too heavy, either, so that the Villanelle, basically a hymn to Spring, is imbued with a joy of life, helped by Langrée’s lilting tempo. But neither is it so light that the tragedy of the next song, Le Spectre de la rose, is beyond her: the particular Berliozian ecstasy of the line ‘j’arrive de Paradis’ is the equal of any of her rivals, and she has a miraculous ability to float phrases beautifully.

Indeed, for a voice which is predominantly of a light bent, Gens has at her disposal an endless ranges of nuances. She darkens her tone unforgettably at the opening of ‘Sur les lagunes’ (to the unforgettable lines, ‘Ma belle amie est morte: Je pleurerai toujours; Sous la tombe elle emporte’ - ‘My beautiful love is dead: I shall weep forever more; to the grave she takes with her’); her ejaculations of the syllable ‘Ah!’ are true cries from the heart. Au cimetière speaks of an almost unbearable sadness; L’île inconnue reveals a wonderful impetuosity.

Langrée is a fine accompanist, taking pains to underline the modernity of Berlioz’ scoring where appropriate (both Au cimetière and L’île inconnue contain examples of this). The Lyon orchestra play magnificently for him (listen to the superbly articulated upward surges of the strings in the final song as one of many examples, so well captured by Pierre-Antoine Signoret’s fine engineering).

The drama of La mort de Cléopâtre (‘The Death of Cleopatra’) reveals another, darker side of Berlioz’ psyche while remaining unmistakably the work of that composer. The orchestra excels itself in the superb scoring of the work’s introduction. Gens projects the prevailing atmosphere of sadness and desolation with every syllable of her utterance, every recitative-like passage refusing to let the listener go. Predating Les Troyens by a quarter of a century, as Yves Gérard points out in his note, it prefigures Dido’s tragic vein in no uncertain terms and Gens is more than equipped for the challenge. The sadness and distress, but also the pride, of the protagonist’s recollections are palpable (when she remembers how she appeared in triumph on the banks of the Cydnus, for example): her evocation of eternal night (immediately prior to the Méditation) is unforgettably bleak. The intensity of this performance is unremitting, every word shaded and weighted with intelligent care.

Again, this is an interpretation which will hold its own in any company, and will certainly complement Jessye Norman’s enormous achievement with the Orchestre de Paris under Daniel Barenboim (DG 410 966-2).

The three final songs of this disc are far, far more than just space-fillers. The text of La captive is by Victor Hugo and elicits from Berlioz, in his 1848 setting, tremendous stillness and beauty at its close. There is also a daring use of silence and an unforgettable evocation of stillness. La belle voyageuse is the fourth of the collection entitled Irlande of 1830 and is here delightful.

It is apt that the disc should end on high spirits. Zaide features prominent Spanish inflections (memorably invoked by castanets in the refrain) and includes a wide variety of emotion in its extremely brief span (3’25). Gens’s final flourish brings an end to a memorable offering from Virgin Classics. A truly beautiful record.

Colin Clarke



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