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,
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'
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