This disc contains
an attractive programme of French orchestral song. At budget
price it should attract a number of buyers provided that the
performances stand scrutiny.
The Berlioz cycle
Les nuits d'été is to my mind one of those works, like
Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder or Strauss’s Vier letzte
Lieder, that no single performance can ever fully encompass
all its aspects. However, any performance should seek to address
at least some of the facets of the score successfully, and
these will naturally vary depending upon the soloist, orchestra
and conductor employed.
is not a singer who springs to mind as a natural Berlioz exponent,
and this is proven in the performance that the work receives.
The principal areas of concern can be summarised in two words:
diction and tempo. The results here might usefully be contrasted
with two alternative versions that do have between them a
large measure of what the cycle demands from the performers:
Agnes Baltsa/LSO/Jeffrey Tate - Philips 416
Janet Baker/New Philharmonia/Sir John Barbirolli
- EMI CDM 7 69544 2
These two recordings
might also demonstrate that the cycle is, in my view, generally
more suited to the mezzo voice, given the shadowy vocal timbre
that many of the lyrics suggest – though I take issue with
Raymond Tuttle’s programme note that claims Berlioz’s setting
to be ‘morbid’ in character. That rather overstates the case.
From the start,
Behrens’ diction is far from clear, so much so that even with
the text - not supplied in the booklet - it is still difficult
to make out more than a few words she sings. Thus Villanelle
inauspiciously opens the cycle, suffering too from a certain
lack of feeling for the music. Both Baltsa and Baker capture
the mood despite also having to overcome linguistic difficulties,
though Baker is more confident in this regard. Whilst the
orchestra is decent, the flutes on entry are slightly too
forwardly placed to be ideal.
de la rose carries more of the requisite erotically charged
tranquillity that perfumes the setting, Behrens being more
at ease with the relaxed tempo, though her French still some
way from clear, but it’s as good as it gets on this recording.
Turning specifically to concerns of tempo Travis fails to
capture the implied momentary start at “Mais ne crains rien…”,
or indeed much of the openly erotic fervour elsewhere. Sur
les lagunes (subtitled ‘lamento’) is far too over-stretched
making it seem closer to a dirge at times, much to the undoing
of the music. For this Francis Travis’s conducting is largely
responsible. Barbirolli’s on the other hand is if anything
a trump card to equal Baker’s singing in these two songs,
though Tate’s more clearly spotlit recording (very much in
the mid-1980s style) does capture much detail in the orchestration.
The Wiener Symphoniker, though competent, fails to match the
impression left by either other orchestra. To her credit Behrens
uses her lower register effectively to create a sense of mystery,
and when Travis does spring to action, the impact comes almost
The fourth song,
Absence, finds Behrens gainly floating a clean line
with the words “Reviens, reviens, ma bien aimée!” – though
in truth she only partly succeeds given that she cannot keep
such enigmatic power under control throughout her range, as
is required. Baker carries the line and song with spirit,
as indeed does Baltsa whose tone occasionally has a slight
edge, though it is not as detrimental to the music as with
in a strange reversal of form, is taken rather quicker by
Travis than either Barbirolli or Tate, and to be honest this
took some getting used to. Still, after several auditions,
I am not wholly convinced by the aptness of the tempo, though
the playing achieved does have more than a touch of moonlight
about it. Behrens, I feel, might have been more comfortable
had a slower tempo been taken, though particularly Baker sets
the standard once again.
The cycle closes
with L’île inconnue, a swift and stormy boat ride to
the country of love. I have long admired how Baltsa rides
the waves, steered capably by Tate, who perhaps even tops
Baker and Barbirolli for the sheer gustiness and spirit of
their reading. Travis follows a somewhat safer course, but
leaves Behrens floundering in a Gallic squall almost from
It will come as
no surprise to you then that I recommend either Baker or Baltsa
as preferable – with Baker being the front-runner of the two
overall, and the recording that collectors are more likely
to find given that it has appeared many times on CD. If I
had access to the Philips back-catalogue I would have given
Baltsa preference over Behrens for reissue, but I can only
wonder why Behrens’ so far wide of the mark effort was chosen.
The rest of the
disc is a completely different affair. So much so, that I
strongly urge anyone dissuaded at this point from reading
further to continue.
Ravel takes the
listener on an Asian voyage from his French armchair in Shéhérazade.
He freely admitted Debussy was the inspiration for the work,
so it’s positive that the two composers should appear on this
disc. Ravel appears intent on setting difficult verse and
in the opening Asie the normally restrained Ravel reaches
heights of near Wagnerian ecstasy as he reaches the words
“Je voudrais voir mourir d’amour ou bien dela haine”, penned
aptly under A.J. Léon Leclère’s pseudonym Tristan Klingsor.
Singer and orchestra are packed off on this journey supplied
with all imaginable richness to deliver the listener as they
recount a virtual Baedeker account of Asian sights to the
delight of ear and eye. With Ameling as a sensitive guide
to such rich desires, and de Waart providing sterling support
this is one journey well worth the making. A beauty that is
more mysterious makes itself aptly evident in their readings
of the shorter second and third verses, as they deliver flute-borne
kisses and invitations for wine that leave the listener in
little doubt that Ravel indulged, somewhat guardedly, a private
subliminal message here.
It’s good to hear
the two Duparc songs included here with their orchestrated
accompaniments. In these songs, arguably the most popular
of Duparc’s pitifully small output, jewel-like clarity is
the key. Ameling only too happily supplies it with shimmering
tone that seems to light on each syllable and make it glisten.
In Chanson triste this finds subtle parallels in the
orchestration, where in addition to softly hued strings, harps
and delightful flute touches predominate, all of which de
Waart draws most convincingly from the SFSO players.
Things turn overtly
erotic once again with L'invitation au voyage, composed
by Duparc for his wife. Was there ever a more sensuous line
set to music than “Lá, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté, Luxe,
calme et volupté.”? It’s a lingering enigma that is steeped
in eternal melancholy – and this is just the quality Ameling
finds in the words. She may take a fraction less time in letting
words fully escape her lips than other singers, but her performance
is balanced by the orchestra who contribute more to the total
feeling than a thousand ill-chosen words might.
damoiselle élue dates from his time interned in the Villa
Medici as a Prix de Rome winner, and it is a curiously cut-about
setting of Rosetti’s The Blessed Damozel. Tuttle correctly
comments that in “Rosetti’s pre-Raphaelite conceit […] nothing
really happens, per se, atmosphere and emotion [are] everything.”
Thus, depicting the entry of a dead woman’s soul to Paradise,
Debussy divides the text to female chorus, who act as commentators,
and the thoughts of the woman herself to a soprano and a mezzo.
This performance finds Ameling once more a convincing advocate
whose subtly polished tones mix well with the restrained yet
telling contribution of Janice Taylor’s mezzo. The chorus
provides a near ideal background, being recorded at a slight
distance, yet not suffering as a result from inaudibility.
De Waart’s pacing is finely judged, as is his control of orchestral
sonorities. It is a fine ending to the second half this disc.
In the end this
disc contains an infuriating mix of artistic results. But
with alternative Berlioz recordings easy to come by, what’s
so wrong with ignoring him here and enjoying the rest?