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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Le Carnaval romain (Ouverture caractéristique), Op. 9 (1844) [9:18]
Hélène,A Op. 2, No. 2 originally a song for two voices and piano (1829) in revised version for male voices and orchestra (1844) [3:34]
Lélio, ou Le Retour à la vieB (Monodrame lyrique), Op. 14bis (1831-32, pub. 1855) [56:46]
Gert Henning-Jensen (tenor) (Horatio)B
Sune Hjerrild (tenor) (La Voix imaginaire de Lélio)B
Jean-Philippe Lafont (speaker/baritone) (Lélio/Le Capitaine)B
Danish National Choir, Danish Radio/Fredrik MalmbergAB
Danish National Symphony Orchestra, Danish Radio/Thomas Dausgaard
rec. 30 July-6 August 2004, Danish Radio Concert Hall, Copenhagen, Denmark. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 10416 [69:37]

 


Three Berlioz scores from the enterprising British independent record label Chandos. Le Carnaval romain is a staple of the repertoire. However, the scores Hélène and Lélio though appealing are rarely heard and make a welcome appearance in the catalogue. 

The opening work on the disc is the popular and exciting Le Carnaval romain (Ouverture caractéristique). From 1844 the score was originally intended as a symphonic introduction to the second act of his opera Benvenuto Cellini ­- a work that had failed at the Paris Opéra in 1838. By the time the overture was completed Berlioz had decided that he would issue the score as a stand-alone concert overture.

The short work Hélène was originally composed in 1829 as a song for two voices and piano using translated texts from Thomas Gounet, after Thomas Moore. In 1844 Berlioz completed a version for chorus and orchestra that was premièred the same year in Paris at the same concert as the first performance of the Le Carnaval romain. 

Hélène has a distinctive brassy, fanfare-like opening. Over muted strings and light percussion the chorus sounds as if it consists of all-male voices, which must represent a choir of shepherds singing about the love between Hélène and William. One notices that the brass section, especially the trumpets are never far away. In 6/8 time, Hélène is a difficult work to categorise, light-hearted and akin to a cross between a drinking song and a tender ballad.

The featured composition on the disc is the ‘monodrame lyrique’, Lélio, ou Le Retour à la vie or The Return to Life. It seems that the rarely heard and performed score was composed in 1831-32. It was designed by Berlioz as a sequel and second part to the Symphonie fantastique (An Episode in the Life of an Artist). A concert on 9 December 1832 at the Paris Conservatoire, where both works were programmed, was described as a ‘Grand Concert Dramatique’, to further emphasise the connection between the two works.

Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique was motivated by his love for the Irish actress Harriet Smithson. However, it is also thought that the romantic inspiration for Lélio was his fiancée Camille Moke. Other commentators say that Miss Smithson was again the muse.

The programmatic Symphonie fantastique is a dramatic pictorialization in music. Not surprisingly, in view of Berlioz’s love of the stage, Lélio is a part-theatrical work, that amalgamates orchestral and choral music using texts mainly in French. There’s also some Italian, with vocal soloists and a substantial part for a narrator who speaks in French. Lélio is unusual and can also be a confusing work. The descriptions of the score that were available to me, I experienced as unhelpful in the main; maybe other writers were just as perplexed as I. My description of Lélio is a pasticcio, comprising assorted fragments, loosely fitted together by a narrative. Evidently the sprawling and often bewildering text of Lélio comprises quotations from his own letters and the inspiration from his literary favourites; such as Goethe and Shakespeare. Berlioz described it as a Return to Life, depicting his own awakening from the nightmare effects of the treacherous poison where Lélio (Berlioz’s alter-ego) searches for his ideal love-mate, assisted by his friend Horatio.

During Berlioz’s lifetime, Lélio was a tremendous popular success with Parisian audiences. However, the unusual mix of requirements undoubtedly makes it such a rarity both in the concert hall and on disc. In particular the generous amount of spoken dialogue results in listening difficulties, unless one actually follows and concentrates on the translated text.

Whilst listening to the score I compiled the following notes:

The score to Lélio commences with a narrative and is divided into six distinct sections. Each section is surrounded by a narrative: 

1. The Fisher, ‘Ballade of Goethe’, Andantino.

For tenor and piano, a delightful ballad attractively and brightly performed by Gert Henning-Jensen (Horatio) displaying a vibrato that is distinctive but never off-putting.

2. Chorus of Shadows, Largo, misterioso.

For mixed chorus and orchestra. For this chilling death march the brass, low strings and percussion are joined by the mixed choir. The music achieves considerable sweeps of choral and orchestral power over a steady pulse from the percussion.

3. Song of the Brigands, Allegro marcato con impeto.

This is a rousing and exciting section for baritone, chorus and orchestra. In his role as soloist Jean-Philippe Lafont, as the captain, is in impressive form; noticeably strong and expressive.

4. Song of Bliss - Hymn, Larghetto un poco lento,

The inner voice of Lélio.

Here the strings and woodwind provide light accompaniment to tenor Sune Hjerrild, as the inner voice of Lélio, who sings beautifully; searingly tender. The part for harp is especially effective. 

5. The Aeolian Harp - Recollections, Larghetto

A highly attractive section for strings and harp with a poignant part for clarinet solo. I am strongly reminded how many years later Percy Grainger used tremolo strings to similar effect, to represent the wafting and gusting winds that he called “wogglings” in his Sailor’s Sea Shanty, Shallow Brown for chorus and orchestra (1910).

6. Fantasia on Shakespeare’s Tempest

a) The Introduction, Andante non troppo lento (sung in Italian) by mixed chorus, orchestra and piano four hands. A generally relaxing section that flows easily. The music on occasions reminded me of the songs from Brahms’s Liebeslieder Walzer for chorus and piano 4-hands, Op. 52 (1868-69).

b) The Tempest marked Allegro assai, un peu retenu en commencant for mixed chorus (sung in Italian) and orchestra contains menacing orchestral playing tempered by a female choir at 1:43 (track 15).

c) The Plot, marked Un peu moins vite for orchestra and mixed chorus (sung in Italian) is a bright piece that canters along with purpose.

d) The Conclusion for orchestra. Rousing and heroic with a pursuit quality somewhat reminiscent of Rossini’s Overture to William Tell (1829).

I cannot readily bring to mind any early nineteenth-century precedents that may have influenced Berlioz to write Lélio. To some degree Lélio invites comparison with Mendelssohn’s 1843 incidental music to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ for soloists, chorus and orchestra, Op. 61 in the edition with narratives for male and female speakers. Now virtually unknown, the Ode-Symphonie, Le Désert by Félicien David, was a work evidently inspired by Lélio becoming a success in 1844 Paris. Le Désert consists of orchestral sections, melodramatic fragments, marches, dances and pieces for choir, interspersed with spoken narrative. 

The Danish National Symphony Orchestra under their chief conductor Thomas Dausgaard provide alert and responsive playing throughout. It would perhaps have benefited from a touch more bite at times. I must single out the famous cor anglais solo from Le Carnaval romain for special praise. The singing from the Danish National Choir in Hélène and Lélio demonstrates impressive unison and the soloists; tenors: Henning-Jensen and Hjerrild, and baritone Lafont provide pleasing performances. It is hard to fault the narration by Lafont, which is particularly well enunciated, displaying a fine feeling for the words. The sound quality is of a high standard, feeling especially well balanced. I thoroughly enjoyed the essay from Richard Langham Smith, although, I am still searching for a clearer description of Lélio.

Probably the best known version of the popular concert overture Le Carnaval romain is the robustly dramatic 1965 performance from the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis. Available as part of his 6-disc set of Berlioz’s: Complete Orchestral Works on Philips 456 143-2. The box set also includes a commendable 1980 account of Lélio (without the narration) also performed by the LSO under Colin Davis with the John Alldis Choir and soloists: Jose Carreras and Thomas Allen. 

In spite of fine performances and recording, Lélio, the featured work, is I fear, a curiosity destined for continued obscurity. An interesting disc that will probably appeal to Berlioz completists only.

Michael Cookson 

 


 


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