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Hector BERLIOZ (1803 - 1869)
Herminie (1828)
La Mort de Cléopâtre (1829)
La Mort de Sardanapale (1830)
La Mort d’Orphée (1827)
Michele Lagrange (Soprano) - 1
Beatrice Uria-Monzon (mezzo soprano) - 2
Daniel Galvez Vallejo (tenor) – 3 & 4
Choeur Regional Nord / Pas de Calais
Orchestre Nationale de Lille, Regional Nord / Pas de Calais, conducted by Jean-Claude Casadesus.
Rec. Palais de Musique, Lille on 19th - 21st October 1994 (1 & 2) and 28th – 29th November 1995.
NAXOS 8.555810 [60’45"]

This fascinating recording has been languishing in Naxos’s vaults for 8 years. Why I can’t imagine, as it is another in the sterling series of French music recordings being made by Jean-Claude Casadesus and his Lille orchestra and chorus. It has been advertised by Naxos as being an issue containing unknown choral works by Berlioz. This not strictly true as most of the disc’s contents are or certainly have been available before.

Both Herminie and La Mort de Cléopâtre have been issued before in first class recordings by Dame Janet Baker, La Mort d’Orphée on a well praised recording by Jean Fournet on Denon (no longer available), but as far as I can tell Naxos is correct with respect to La Mort de Sardanapale.

The four works were all entries by Berlioz to the Prix du Rome, which he won on the fourth attempt with La Mort de Sardanapale. Listening to all four, I can’t help but feel that the eventual winner is the least interesting work – perhaps it is because the others are better known, although I don’t think so.

The first two are settings for female voice and orchestra, and fans of the composer will recognise themes from other Berlioz works in these early cantatas. It is probable that the themes had their earliest outings here, being used later in the more familiar guises. Elements of Lélio, Symphonie fantastique, are used freely to enhance the already highly lyrical backdrop to these works.

What of the performances? Jean-Claude Casadesus has an instinctive feel for these works and he is aided and abetted by the tonal quality of the orchestra. The Orchestre Nationale de Lille has the sound of a Berlioz ensemble – those fans of the composer, like me, will know what I means – full blooded brass, highly accurate woodwinds and an excellent string section, all able to negotiate around Berlioz’s difficult harmonies as to the manner born. Allied to this, Naxos has provided a very natural acoustic in which to record all this activity.

The soloists are first class. Too often recordings like this are ruined by soloists who wobble or shout or at worst, both. All three vocalists in these cantatas excel themselves and as they are all native French singers or French trained, the words come over most naturally. The Palais de Lille, as recorded here, exhibits a very warm acoustic with a slight echo which enhances these exciting, accurate performances. We should not be too worried that the original score of La Mort de Sardanapale has been lost, and this is a reconstruction from orchestral parts. It is a very good opportunity for fans of Berlioz to get a further fix – there is no Roméo et Juliette or Requiem here, but the repertoire is not generally available except for La Mort de Cléopâtre and Herminie and this disc is a good way of getting hold of excellent, well sung, played and recorded evidence of the composer’s history with La Prix de Rome.

John Phillips

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