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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Inbal Berlioz Edition

Symphonie Fantastique, Opus 14 (1830)
Harold en Italie, Opus 16 (1834)
Yuri Bashmet (viola)
La Damnation de Faust (1845-6)
Maria Ewing (soprano), Dues Gulyas (tenor), Robert Lloyd (baritone), Manfred Volz (bass)
Kölner Rundfundchor, Südfunkchor Stuttgart, Chor des NDR Hamburg
Roméo et Juliette, Opus 17 (1839)
Nadine Denize (mezzo soprano), Vinson Cole (tenor), Robert Lloyd (baritone)
Südfunkchor Stuttgart, RIAS Kammerchor Berlin
L'Enfance du Christ (1854)
Margarita Zimmermann (soprano), Eike Wilm Schulte (baritone), Stanford Dean (bass), John Aler (tenor), Philip Kang (bass)
Kölner Rundfundchor, Chor des NDR Hamburg
Te Deum, Opus 22 (1849)
Keith Lewis (tenor)
Matthias Eisenberg (organ)
Vokalensemble Frankfurt, Bachchor und Currende der Christuskirche Mainz, Kinder und Jugendchor des Hessischen Rundfunks
Requiem, Opus 5 (1837)
Keith Lewis (tenor)
Chor des NDR Hamburg, Konzertvereinigung ORF-Chor
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
Eliahu Inbal
Recorded: 24-25 Sept 1987 (Symphonie Fantastique), 24-25 March 1988 (Harold en Italie), 16-18 February 1988 (La Damnation de Faust), 3-6 January 1988 (Roméo et Juliette), 31 May-3 June 1989 (L'Enfance du Christ), 25-26 February 1988 (Te Deum), 1988 (Requiem), Alte Oper Frankfurt DDD
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 99999 [11CDs: 56.05 (Symphonie Fantastique), 40.22 (Harold en Italie), 58.06 and 69.01 (Faust), 50.32 and 44.33 (Roméo et Juliette), 39.28 and 51.54 (L'Enfance du Christ), 47.31 (Te Deum), 46.36 and 35.55 (Requiem)]


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This major 11-CD set recorded in Frankfurt during 1988 and 1989, has been reissued to coincide with the Berlioz Bicentenary. It forms an attractive package, with slim wallets for each individual disc and a beautifully produced box to contain the whole. The accompanying booklet has full notes and texts, though not, alas, translations into English.

Berlioz was a great original, of course, who was never content to go down an established path if his muse led him elsewhere. Reading through the list of credits for this set, one is made intensely aware of this, both because of the scale and complexity of the enterprise. Inbal and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra are the common factor, and as such they deserve full praise for the consistent standard of excellence that they achieve. While there may be finer performances of individual pieces, all the performances gathered together here are fully satisfying and rank alongside the best available.

Which brings us to the question: who might want this collection? There are two answers, surely. First, the Berlioz enthusiast who wants to supplement a collection, or add some new items, while duplicating several others. This is hardly a problem at the attractive Brilliant Classics price. Second, there is the collector at an earlier stage of his 'career', who might feel that gaining these works at so appealing a price represents a real bargain. Both these options make this set an attractive proposition, and one to be taken very seriously.

Although there are eleven discs in the collection, they are not efficient of time, since several play for well under the normal running time of 70 or so minutes. With separate issues this might have been a cause for complaint, but in the context of this collection it is the right option, since each disc or pair of discs remains devoted to the work in question. There are no fillers, such as the concert overtures, and in that sense the issue makes no attempt to be complete.

Inbal is always sensitive to the subtle nuances of the Berlioz style, and succeeds in capturing the special atmosphere of each piece. The same is true of the recorded sound, which is both atmospheric and truthful. The levels tend to be on the low side, but by boosting the amplifier a full dramatic impact is achieved. That said, in general terms, it is the lyrical aspect of the composer's muse that gains the most from these performances.

Take the famous Symphonie Fantastique, for example. The slow movement, the Scene in the Country, is beautifully done, with some perfectly judged balancing of the woodwind instruments that have such special roles in this movement. As a result, the following March to the Scaffold makes a strong impression, even if its rhythmic bite is less urgent than it is in the hands of either Colin Davis or Leonard Bernstein, for example.

Harold in Italy, Berlioz's second symphony, has an obbligato part for the viola, which is played here by Yuri Bashmet, no less. His playing is all that we might expect it to be, and as such is one of the great strengths of the set. However, there is occasionally a tendency towards slower tempi, in the Pilgrim's March for example, which slacken the tension and impetus of the music. Otherwise this is a fine performance.

The Damnation of Faust is one of Berlioz's largest works, and resulted from a compelling interest in Goethe which lasted for decades. Inbal's grasp of the longer-term issues is impressive, as too his mastery of balancing the contributions of the assembled forces. Maria Ewing makes an appealing, tender Marguerite, Robert Lloyd a powerful Mephistopheles. The tenor Dunes Gulyas has an appropriate voice, though his phrasing is not always as urgently compelling. Again it is in the lyrical aspects of the score that the music is heard to best advantage. The final stages, the Ride to the Abyss and Pandemonium, are more exciting in the hands of Colin Davis, who has the courage to take a really urgent and fast tempo.

In the dramatic symphony Roméo and Juliet, Inbal again has an appropriate sense of the work's larger scale concerns, and one pleasing result is that the final choral movement does sound genuinely climactic. The beautiful Love Scene is atmospheric and particularly expressive, while the Queen Mab Scherzo has a delightfully light touch. There is no lack of excitement, either, when Romeo joins the Capulets' Feast.

It is no surprise, in the context of these performances as a whole, that L'Enfance du Christ is a work that suits Inbal particularly well. Sometimes the lack of French voices among the singers, both choral and solo, seems to lose a little intensity of expression, but on the whole the diction and shaping of phrases is successful. The balancing of voices and orchestra too is a pleasing aspect of the performance. Here and elsewhere one occasionally wonders whether a little more rehearsal might have been ideal. A glance at the dates of the recordings reveals just how short a time span was involved in putting this project together.

The monumental Te Deum has one of Berlioz's most impressive openings, as organ and orchestra exchange massive chords. The effect here is a little under-whelming, until the amplifier volume addresses the issue. The fugal setting of the Te Deum text does not have the bite of either Davis (Philips) or Abbado (DG), but as the performance proceeds it generates its own sweep and personality. Keith Lewis makes a fine soloist, his tenor voice sounding a noble yet lyrical tone. And in the final movement the urgent rhythmic drive of the Judex crederis, replete with six side-drummers, brings an exciting conclusion.

The complex emotional world of the Requiem gives Inbal further opportunities to explore the remarkable range of the Berlioz style. Again the lyrical, more tender moments come off well, and again Keith Lewis proves an estimable soloist (the only solo voice in this work). The powerful sections of the score, featuring all those timpani and brass groups, do not lack impact either. But it is in the longer-term grasp of the musical vision that Inbal scores strongly. He does not seek histrionic excitement for its own sake, rather he allows the expressive flow of the musical line to cast its own spell.

At the bargain asking price this set is well worth considering, since the performances are satisfying, the recorded sound is beautifully balanced and the production standards are high.


Terry Barfoot

 



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