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High Definition Tape Transfers

Hector BERLIOZ (1803 – 1869)
Les Nuits d’été, op.7 (1. Villanelle [2:13]; 2. Le Spectre de la rose [7:14]; 3. Sur les lagunes [6:55]; 4. Absence [5:10]; 5. Au cimetière [6:13]; 6. L’île inconnue [3:49])
L’Enfance du Christ, Op. 25 (excerpt): L’adieu des bergers: (7. Scene V: Bethlehem; the Stable [7.51]; 8. Scene VI: Unseen Angels [4.41]; 9. The Flight into Egypt: Overture [5.28])
10. The Shepherds’ Farewell to the Holy Family [5.02]
Leontyne Price (soprano)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner (Op. 7)
Elsie Morison (soprano); John Cameron (baritone)
St. Anthony Singers; Goldsbrough Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis (Op. 25)
rec. 1964 (Op. 7) 1960 (Op 25)
HDTT HDCD180 [54:40]
available in Redbook CD, 24/96 DVD and HQCD.
Experience Classicsonline

This most beautiful of song-cycles has been unusually fortunate on disc. It’s not really a song-cycle as such, given that the compilation of poems set to music is random in nature and the fact that it narrates no story other than delineating in general attitudes to love and loss. I rank some half a dozen versions amongst my favourite Berlioz listening; reactions to this one will largely depend upon whether you like a big, smoky, “grande dame” of a voice like that of Leontyne Price giving the songs the operatic treatment. I do; furthermore I shall annoy some collectors by saying straightaway that while I love versions by Janet Baker, Kiri Te Kanawa, Jessye Norman, Eleanor Steber and Victoria de Los Angeles, I cannot live with Crespin’s famous account, which I find scratchily vocalised and too imperiously detached in interpretation. I know I am not alone in this; the eminent voice critic David Cairns in “Song on Record” expresses similar bewilderment that Crespin’s 1963 recording with Ernest Ansermet and L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande is so widely admired. Nor do I have time for bland, detached versions by Von Otter and Bernarda Fink or that by Véronique Gens, whose voice is too light. David Daniels’ counter-tenor version is very fine in its way; hors concours in that it remains a curiosity, hardly a “best recording” but self-recommending to his fans and those for whom his voice type in this music is no obstacle. There are still others which have been praised, such as José van Dam’s unusual baritone version, but essentially one makes a choice between a set sung by four singers in the original keys, or transpositions for either mezzo or soprano. My preference is for the unity conferred by one singer and for a warm, vibrant, “Romantic” style of female voice, either mezzo or soprano. I shy away from the cooler, lighter voiced interpreters, but I am aware that others hold tastes diametrically opposed to mine. I would place Price very high indeed in my ranking. “Gramophone” critic Andrew Porter was uncomplimentary about this release, preferring Crespin, but this is consistent with the stance of that venerable organ. For what it’s worth, this 1964 recording (coupled with “El Amor Brujo”) by Price and Fritz Reiner with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra won a Grammy the following year but seems to have dropped out of the running since. No version is perfect: Baker makes both textual and musical slips in her celebrated Barbirolli version (for example “faîtes” for “fait”, and coming in a beat early in “Au cimetière”). Some find her just a little arch in the two lighter, outer songs, but hers remains the gold standard recording for most listeners and I am not inclined to argue. I find Te Kanawa’s version with Barenboim to be hugely under-rated. The usual lazy accusation that she is all lovely, luminous beauty of tone but expressionless simply does not stand up to an unbiased listening: she and Barenboim get just the right combination of tempo and phrasing to ensure the requisite lightness and insouciance in the notoriously tricky “Villanelle”. She deploys a rich lower register (which was not always present, but she worked hard at it), taking the low F-sharp option on “linceul” in “Sur les lagunes”. She really lives the anguish of “Absence” and assumes a wonderfully apt “child-voice” in “Au cimetière”. I have spent a little time adumbrating the virtues of Te Kanawa’s account because in many ways hers is vocally and interpretatively similar to Price’s. If you like one you will probably like the other, despite the individuality of their voices. Others do it differently: Frederica Von Stade is uniquely plaintive, Jessye Norman grand, Eleanor Steber vibrant, Victoria de los Angles poignant; there is room for all those great dames. None of the versions which share the songs among two, three or four singers seems to me to have much star quality and, as I said, I prefer at least the illusion of unity provided by one performer.
Price is at her peak here: at this stage of her career, that big, large-scale voice is absolutely secure in all areas, especially in the husky middle which eventually dropped out. It would be disingenuous not to remark that at times it is like hearing Aida perform these delicate songs. Nonetheless, Price inflects the text in well-schooled, if not especially idiomatic, French and she produces the grand effect that Crespin aims for but cannot achieve with less effulgent vocal resources. Although I compared her with Te Kanawa, she is least successful where Te Kanawa scores, in the opening song; “Villanelle“, whose delivery borders on the hectic rather than the merely sprightly, and thus does not form the best possible introduction to the cycle. After that, however, it gets better and better. My favourite song, “Le Spectre de la Rose” – or is it “Absence”? I can never decide – is caressed in luscious, dreamy tones, the accompaniment beautifully articulated by the orchestra. Price produces a wonderful crescendo on “j’arrive du paradis”, just like Jessye Norman. She has a great conductor and orchestra to accompany her: just listen to the beginning of the third stanza where there is a lovely tremolo on the strings, which then sigh exquisitely in thirds and fifths on “Et sur l’albâtre”; perfect. In “Absence”, Price uses a delicate half voice in her cry “Reviens”, and achieves a desperate, searing melancholy exactly where you need it in “à lasser les pied des chevaux”; in “Sur les lagunes” she assumes a suitably ghostly, blanched, washed-out tone; “Au cimetière” benefits from the profundity and resignation implied by her sonorous lower register. So much of what she does is right and there is a surprising variety of tonal colouring; this is a real interpretation, not a perfunctory sing-through.
The sound is superb, expertly remastered from RCA’s original 4-track tape. There is barely a hint of hiss and a wholly satisfying depth and warmth suffuses the whole performance.
Bonuses are provide in the form of an extended extract from Colin Davis’ 1960 “L’Enfance du Christ”, with Elsie Morison tender and delightful as Mary and Joseph Cameron giving her sterling support as Joseph – yet the singers remain unidentified by the notes. These extracts are also in excellent sound, similarly remastered from the original 4-track tape, this time from Decca London. Some might have wished that the coupling had instead been taken from the famous recording conducted by Charles Munch but this one with the St Anthony Singers is still very pleasing.
Full texts and translations into English are provided for the song-cycle only and it has to be said that they are in a rather amateurish format: fuzzy printing on poor paper with a loose, perforated insert.* Indeed the whole enterprise has a rather low-budget appearance, but with performances of this artistic and technical quality it matters little. One small linguistic issue: the title should appear as “Les Nuits d’été" and not "D’été", which is a French solecism. Packaging apart, this is a glamorous issue for lovers of Berlioz, Price, Reiner and the Romantic sensibility in general.

* We have been given to understand that commercial releases are on a higher standard of paper - Len

Ralph Moore



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