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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Grande Symphonie funèbre et triomphale, Op. 15 [34’30"]
La Mort de Cléopâtre* [23’08"]
Overture Benvenuto Cellini, Op. 23*** [10’23"]
Overture Le Carnaval romain, Op. 9*** [9’15"]
Overture Les Francs-Juges, Op. 3***[13’17"]
Overture Le Corsaire, op. 21*** [8’31"]
Les Troyens, excerpts**: Chasse royale et orage [14’10"]; Ballet [4’41"]; Marche troyenne [5’20"]
Chorale Populaire de Paris
Musique des Gardiens de la Paix/Désiré Dondeyne
*Nadine Denize (mezzo-soprano)
* **Nouvel Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Gilbert Amy
*** Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg/Alain Lombard
Recorded: Notre-Dame, Paris, 1958; * and ** Studios of Radio France, Paris, 1980; *** Strasbourg, 1980 ADD
WARNER APEX 2564 62183-2 [57’45" +65’51"]

This is quite a useful collection of Berlioz pieces, not least because it doesn’t just tread the familiar paths but includes on Disc One a couple of comparative rarities. In a way it’s a pity that the recording of the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale is, by some distance, the oldest included here since this work, with its massive sonorities, is one that benefits especially from modern recording techniques. So this 1958 recording doesn’t have anything like the richness and depth of Sir Colin Davis’s Philips 1969 account (Philips), still less the digital splendour of the recording made for Decca in the mid-1980s by Charles Dutoit in Montreal. What it does have, however, is that recognisably piquant French wind tone and an equally Gallic tone in the brass. So, for example, the awesome chords that introduce the second movement, ‘Oration funèbre’ have nowhere near the majesty and depth that either of the other two recordings demonstrate (Davis in particular) but they do have a certain stridency that I find not unappealing. Much less appealing, however, is the euphonium-like tone of the unnamed trombonist in this movement. Here the redoubtable Dennis Wick (Davis) is peerless. The concluding movement, ‘Apothéose’ is tremendously jaunty and I rather enjoyed it, though I must say I prefer the greater weight and breadth that Davis, at a slightly slower tempo, imparts. I don’t think Désiré Dondeyne employs the optional string parts in this movement. – they’d probably be inaudible if he did – but the choir that he uses makes a useful contribution. They may not be the subtlest choir one has heard but on this occasion that doesn’t matter. They sing with fervour and strike me as sounding truly like un chśur des citoyens.

The remainder of the programme is of more recent vintage. The overtures receive good performances although I felt that the account of Les Francs-Juges, while good, lacked the last ounce of gothic menace. On the other hand the performance of Le Carnaval romain is lively, with the carnival gaiety nicely conveyed. In the last analysis none of these performances posts a serious challenge to the likes of Sir Colin Davis or Charles Munch but they give pleasure.

The presentation of the excerpts from Les Troyens is something of a tangle. In the heading to this review I’ve replicated the track listings but in fact these are incorrect. The performances of Chasse royale et orage lasts only 9’42". Then, after a gap of six seconds, but on the same track, comes the first part of the Ballet from Act 4, scene 2 of the opera, Dance of the Egyptian Dancing Girls. What’s described in the listing as ‘Ballet’ (track 6) is, in fact, the second dance in the ballet, Dance of Slaves. The third part of the ballet, the short Dance of the Nubian Slaves, is omitted, probably and understandably because it needs a chorus. As to the performances, the opening of Chasse royale et orage is a bit prosaic. I don’t feel that the sultry, languorous pre-storm landscape is really suggested here. However later on there’s a fine horn solo and echo – and the solo horn also distinguishes him- or herself at the very end. The storm itself is exciting. The dances are well done.

To complete the set we are given a work of Berlioz that is relatively unfamiliar. This is La Mort de Cléopâtre, a solo cantata, which was his (unsuccessful) entry for the Prix de Rome contest in 1829. It’s easy to see why Berlioz didn’t win the favour of the judges for in those days the contest for the Prix de Rome was hidebound by convention and Berlioz’s piece is anything but conventional. It may not be one of his masterpieces but it’s an original, dramatic and characteristically individual offering. It’s persuasively and expressively sung here by Nadine Denize, a singer who I don’t recall hearing before. She has a full-toned voice with a nice amount of richness in its lower register though I thought I detected a touch of stridency and unsteadiness of pitch on the very highest notes. She’s particularly impressive in the gravity and dignity with which she invests the dark passage in the Méditation section, beginning at ‘Grands Pharaons’ (CD 1, track 4, 11’58"). This episode is well prepared by Gilbert Amy and his orchestra, typifying the very good support they provide for the soloist. Though I shan’t lightly part from the inimitable Janet Baker in this work (with Colin Davis) I admired and enjoyed this alternative account and it’s good to hear what I presume is a native French-speaker.

The sound quality on the 1980 recordings is good without being anything special. The earlier recording of the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale perhaps inevitably shows its age a bit more but it’s quite acceptable. The documentation consists of a note that is so brief as to be of limited use. However, the French texts for both the symphony and the cantata are provided along with English translations. Praise be!

This is a useful and enjoyable Berlioz collection. If you don’t have some of these works in your collection or wish to explore some of the French master’s less frequently heard works this is a good and inexpensive anthology.

John Quinn



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