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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Les Nuits d’été, op.7*: 1. Villanelle [02:16], 2. Le Spectre de la rose [06:25], 3. Sur les lagunes [06:37], 4. Absence [05:15], 5. Au cimetière [06:10], 6. L’île inconnue [03:57]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Pelléas et Mélisande, op.80: Prélude [06:25], Fileuse [02:35], Sicilienne [04:10], Death of Mélisande [04:58]
Elly Ameling (soprano)*
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Robert Shaw
Recorded on March 21st 1983 and May 10th 1985 in the Symphony Hall, Atlanta
TELARC CD 80084 [49:34]


In 1983 Elly Ameling was 49 and had been performing for nearly thirty years. There are some singers whose careers have continued far longer than this (Maggie Teyte was 52 when she recorded two of these Berlioz songs), but voices age differently. There are still some lovely sounds here but there is also a slight unsteadiness which increases when under pressure. It’s a rather awkward point in a singer’s career; with so much that is still lovely, her best friends would have been hard put to whisper in her ear that it would be time to retire, yet those of us for whom she was one of the best-loved Bach singers and lieder singers of the 1960s and 1970s can only hanker after the days when all was perfect.

All the same, I don’t know if even then she would have been the ideal singer for “Nuits d’été”. Of course, it’s in the nature of the cycle that any one singer will be more suited to some songs than others (Colin Davis famously made a recording with four voices, which is what Berlioz actually intended). “Villanelle” would have been ideal for her, and it still gets the cycle off to a charming start. But, if we are to hear the work from just one singer, surely we require a singer with the darkness of tone and the dramatic weight for the more significant later songs, even if such a singer would be a shade heavy for “Villanelle”. It would also help to have a more involved contribution from the orchestra than Robert Shaw’s laid-back professionalism provides.

Such a conducting style might seem more at home in Fauré, and indeed, there is much attractive shading, but the famous “Sicilienne” is very sluggish indeed. In any case, an interpretative manner which blandly fails to differentiate between two such different composers does no favour to either.

All things considered, a recording which captures a much-loved singer at a late stage of her career in a work mostly unsuited to her, with uninspiring orchestral support, might have been better left in the vaults. A fair enough bargain reissue, you might say. Well, since critics don’t pay for their records I’m not quite sure what this costs, but I presume that for a little more than half the price of a top-price CD you get a little more than half the length of many such, so where is the bargain? The total timing, by the way, is nowhere mentioned on the cover or the booklet, though the timings of the individual pieces are, if suspicious listeners can be troubled to add them up before purchasing.

There are notes in English, texts and translations. For this relief much thanks.

Christopher Howell


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