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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869) Les nuits d'été, op.7 (1840-41) [31.58]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) Shéhérazade (1903) [20.49]
Henri DUPARC (1848-1933) Chanson triste (1868, orch. 1902) [3.30]; L'invitation au voyage (1870) [4.39]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1915) La damoiselle élue (1890) [20.11]
Hildegard Behrens (soprano)/Wiener Symphoniker/Francis Travis (Berlioz)
Janice Taylor (mezzo)/Women of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus (Debussy)
Elly Ameling (soprano)/San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Edo de Waart (Ravel, Duparc, Debussy)
Recorded in the Sofiensaal, Vienna, October 1983 (Berlioz); Davies Hall, San Francisco, October 1981 (Ravel, Duparc, Debussy). DDD.
PHILIPS ELOQUENCE 476 7982 [77.36]


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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.

Hildegard Behrens 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 416 807-2

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.

Le spectre 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 too late.

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 Behrens.

Au cimetière, 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 the start.

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. 

Debussy’s La 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?

Evan Dickerson





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