Aureole etc.

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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14 (1830) [56.05]
Harold en Italie, Op. 16 (1848) [40.22]
Yuri Bashmet, viola
La Damnation de Faust Légende Dramatique en 4 parties (1846) [127.07]
Maria Ewing, soprano; Denes Gulyas, tenor; Robert Lloyd, baritone;
Manfred Volz, bass; Christiane Oelze, soprano;
Kölner Rundfunkchor; Sudfunkchor, Stuttgart; Chor des NDR Hamburg
Roméo et Juliet Symphonie Dramatique, Op. 17 (1839) [95.05]
Nadine Denize, mezzo-soprano; Vinson Cole, tenor; Robert Lloyd, baritone
Kölner Rundfunkchor; Sudfunkchor, Stuttgart; RIAS-Kammerchor, Berlin.
L’Enfance du Christ, Op. 25 (1854) [91.22]
Margarita Zimmermann, soprano; Elke Wilm Schulte, baritone;
Stanford Dean, bass; John Aler, tenor; Philip Kang, bass.
Te Deum, Op. 22 (1849) [47.31]
Keith Lewis, tenor; Matthias Eisenberg, organ; Vokalensemble Frankfurt;
Bachchor and Currende der Christuskirche, Mainz;
Kinder- und Jugenchor des Hessischen Rundfunks
Grande Messe des Morts, Op. 5 (1867) [82.31]
Keith Lewis, tenor; Chor des NDR, Hamburg; Konzertvereinigung ORF-Chor.
Eliahu Inbal conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
Notes in English. Texts in original languages, no translations
Recorded in Frankfurt 1987 - 1989
Licensed from Denon-Nippon Columbia Ltd, Japan
Hector Berlioz Edition
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 99999-01/11 [11 CDs: 540.03]

The greatest Berlioz conductors recently have been Charles Munch and Sir Colin Davis. Munch was from Alsace, positioned between Germany and France, and equally able to soften the excessive German-ness of Brahms as he was to Germanize excess French-ness in Berlioz. England has, since 1066, also lain between Germany and France, so it is no surprise that an English conductor like Davis should be equally able to balance music that was in its conception slightly off center.

The only one of these performances I was previously acquainted with was the Harold in Italy, and, for all its virtues, mostly in the gorgeous tone of the soloist, Yuri Bashmet, this recording lies a bit on the German side of all right. Orchestral balance is excellent, sound is full, clear and thrilling. If you really love this music you already have the 1952 Beecham recording, and this makes a nice super sound companion to round out your collection.

This recording by Inbal may be overall the best CD of Romeo and Juliet ever done. The recorded sound is brilliant, the orchestral playing energetic, the baritone persuasive and the chorus committed and lively. The all-time great performance of the work is on the sound track of a video recorded by Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra about 30 years ago; their studio recording follow-up failed to measure up, and the video has never been offered for home viewing. Munch’s recording with the BSO is one of his least successful, being in 1953 mono sound with college choirs and a very uncommitted Friar Laurence. The first part is great — considering; but never mind, it’s been cut out and long remaindered.

Whether or not Berlioz ever actually considered writing a full length opera on the Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet, the first part of the "Dramatic Symphony" consists of movements that could easily form entr’actes and set pieces from such a work. The drama does not really begin until last third of the work when Friar Laurence in a text by Berlioz likens the heterosexual sacrifice of Romeo and Juliet to Jesus’ death on the cross. He then offers his own life as an additional sacrifice in an invocation on God to perform a miracle of reconciliation between the warring families who, until that very moment, have remained firm in their resolve to continue their violent vendetta. God obliges, sparing Friar Laurence, and the Montagues and Capulets abruptly reform exclaiming that their hearts have been miraculously healed and pledge eternal friendship in the names of their slain children. It is odd that the Atheist Berlioz should tamper with Shakespeare to the extent of adding more religion than was there already. Regardless, what we have is in essence a brief operatic scene with a very, very long overture, another example of Berlioz’s experimental approach to large musical forms.

It’s hard to realize today that for 125 years Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was considered a failed experiment, a would-be masterpiece, a problematic work. Critics analyzed it and catalogued its many faults, and a number of composers wrote works which in one way or another patched up what were seen as the obvious deficiencies of the Beethoven work. Perhaps the very first was Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet, a symphony with a choral finale. Obviously, Berlioz considered Beethoven’s error was in using oratorio rather than opera as his model, so here we have a choral symphony which addresses monumental themes in the context of a personal tragic story, albeit highly abstracted. Berlioz’s baritone soloist is an individual with a name, in distinction to Beethoven’s anonymous cheerleader, Everyman. Also Berlioz’s work, as in Mahler’s Second Symphony, has a dramatic mood development during the choral finale, remedying another frequently cited fault in the Beethoven work which was derided for its juvenile unvarying repetition of ‘Joy! Joy! Joy!’ In Berlioz, as in Mahler’s Second Symphony, the chorus starts out singing one thing and ends up singing something else.

The Symphonie Fantastique is brilliantly recorded, measured and unfrantic. Inbal observes the repeat in the ‘March to the Scaffold’ movement which used to be considered not only unnecessary but a dramatic absurdity, but now of course must be done regardless. The recording gives prominence to the string basses and raucous low brass as called for in the score. The wind players especially deserve commendation for their attention to authentic performance details. The bells are not just orchestra chimes but have the quality of real churchbells. The bass drum sounds like it’s ten feet across. However, my old favorites, Stokowski (Decca 1967) and Scherchen (Nixa 1953 mono, now available on the TAHRA label) both manage to generate more mystery and excitement, in small part because they do NOT observe the fourth movement repeat. But no one is likely to buy this set to get a first recording of the Symphonie Fantastique, and this one, due to its unusual fidelity to the score, is a worthy addition to any collection, far better than the Norrington "original" version which is disappointingly plodding.

Sir Colin Davis’s recording of Berlioz’s Requiem [ADD] is one of the greatest recordings of anything ever done. Another recent and well thought of recording is by Robert Shaw on Telarc. Inbal’s recording compares favorably with both of these in several ways. Davis’s chorus is the most involved. In the critical Dies Irae section his tenors move from being mad as hell to being scared to death. Davis’s operatic sense of drama carries the day easily, but unfortunately the sound, although excellent, is just starting to show its age. Shaw has the best recorded sound with a deep perspective and very well trained, if uninvolved singers. He accents the drum parts with shattering sforzandi not heard in other versions — thunderclaps on Calvary perhaps? Inbal achieves the requested overpowering sound from the massed brass and drums. His choruses are skilled and project strongly, but they are neither angry or frightened; there is a curious disconnectedness between the chorus and orchestra, as though they were recorded separately somewhere else and added in later. Also his chorus sounds smaller than either Shaw or Davis. The Charles Munch recording is admirable in many ways, but is smaller sounding and the sound is dated. Berlioz’s Requiem has always been the quintessential hi-fi demonstration piece and the sound must overpower or the music loses its perspective.

Robert Shaw is a Protestant minister who has devoted his life to preaching the gospel through music. Not knowing the religious views of either Davis or Inbal, I cannot begin to make a complete statement on this issue. But, Berlioz was an Atheist and to him death was absolutely terrifying; Shaw’s genial Protestantism may be just a little too optimistic for him to capture the fearful drama here. The Catholic view of death is more severe and more emotional, and was closer to Berlioz’s cultural, if not intellectual, attitude.

Inbal’s tenor (Keith Lewis) is far and away the best in the Sanctus in his mystical dialogue with the angels’ chorus. Davis’s tenor (Ronald Dowd) is operatic but not accurate. Shaw’s tenor (John Aler, also heard here in L’Enfance du Christ) is almost as good if just a little more extroverted than Lewis, but the following Hosanna fugue has too much inappropriate Handelian grandeur, whereas Inbal gives us a Bachian allegro. I have heard that Pavarotti has sung this part, and just thinking about that makes me ill.

Berlioz described his Te Deum as a ‘little brother’ to the Requiem not only because it is shorter, but presumably also because it is somewhat lighter in tone. Davis’s recording omits two bright ceremonial marches and attempts to give the work as much operatic drama as possible and make it comparable to the Requiem in grandeur. Inbal’s inclusion of these two sprightly marches lightens the mood of the whole piece. Again Keith Lewis excels in the tenor part; the sound is clear if not quite so spacious as the Davis [ADD] recording.

The Damnation of Faust has been recorded frequently and is now described as an ‘opera’ although it was not always so, for there is no attempt to tell the whole story. Only scenes from it here and there are presented; in fact the work was originally titled "Eight Scenes from Faust." Faust dies unrepentant, only Marguerite is raised to paradise. In the final choruses in Hell the residents sing in a nonsense language based upon scientific research into the sounds actually uttered by the damned. Dante notwithstanding, in the Enlightenment Rationalist view the inmates of Hell obviously cannot speak, for if they could they would ask for forgiveness which the One True Merciful God would naturally grant them.

The first hi-fi recording was by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which was also RCA’s first stereo mastered recording. Although his Marguerite was disappointing, Munch’s Faust (David Poleri) and Mephistopheles (Martial Singher) are still unsurpassed, especially in their ensemble scenes. Singher’s exultant "Je suis vainqueur!" cancelling out Faust’s scream of terror as he falls into Hell is a moment that will stay with you forever. Curiously, the stereo master tape of this performance has been stolen and only the monophonic tape is still in the RCA/BMG archives and that is what was released on CD.

During the Ride To The Abyss sequence Faust and Mephistopheles on horseback encounter a procession of children singing a hymn to the Virgin; when they see Mephistopheles riding past, the children’s singing is cut off by a scream. Most conductors (including Munch) have the chorus merely sing a single high note, but Inbal actually has them shriek individually and run away. And, Inbal has the best Marguerite (Maria Ewing) I’ve ever heard, his orchestra and choruses perform beautifully and are given excellent digital sound, and his men are OK, resulting in a better than satisfactory version. But if you want the very best Mephistopheles, you will also want to have the Munch recording. Ian Lace on MusicWeb recommends the 1973 Colin Davis ADD recording which I have not been able to hear, but the soloists on that recording are not as well known as the ones recommended above. While several reviewers feel that Davis’s new recording on LSO Live is the best one, although I have not heard it, other reviewers observed that the chorus was slightly less than distinguished and tended to get tired as the evening progressed, a likely difficulty with a live performance of a work lasting over two hours. Reviewers for glossy magazines generally have a tendency to recommend the newest recording, whatever; it’s good for advertising revenues.

L’Enfance du Christ is possibly the least known of all the works in this set. In comparing this version with the Sir Colin Davis [ADD] recording on Double Decca, generally recommended as the best available, Inbal has the advantage in the orchestra and chorus sound and, whatever we want to think, John Aler is clearly more effective as the Récitant than Peter Pears. Pears’ fatal wobble had already set in by the time of this recording (1960) and in Les Pèlerins étant venus it is devastating. Davis’s approach is more operatic, but that is not always a clear advantage. Elsie Morison’s voice is lighter and more secure than Margarita Zimmermann’s, however the very lack of those qualities can at times makes Zimmermann sound more authentically maternal. Davis’s Joseph, John Cameron, and his Hérode, Joseph Rouleau, are both superior in richness of sound and dramatic control to Inbal’s male singers. Since Enfance is a relatively brief work for two CDs, Davis’s recording is filled out with four brief Berlioz vocal cantatas. Nobody will buy this set only for L’Enfance, and the real question is whether you will be satisfied with Inbal or will want the Davis also, and you can make up your mind about that in due time.

Paul Shoemaker

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