This is the sort of performance that makes the reviewer's job
difficult, simply because it always sounds "right".
Matthew Best's tempi sound spot-on, the phrases flow in a natural, cantabile
and the progression from movement to movement sounds inevitable.
It's the kind of reading that tends to disarm criticism and to
beg analysis, and it would be nice just to say, buy it and enjoy
it - still, some specifics are probably in order.
To begin, the score has never before sounded quite so "French".
High-profile virtuoso orchestras have played this music handsomely
on record - notably the Boston Symphony and the London Symphony,
for Munch (RCA) and Colin Davis (Philips, lost in Universal Music's
digital limbo) respectively - but with a sort of all-purpose
cosmopolitan sheen. Best somehow finds, or feels, the balance
of colors that brings Berlioz's orchestral palette back to its
French roots. Listen to the Ouverture
to Part II, where
the sequence and blend of woodwind solos evokes the reed-heavy
registration of a French organ; the aural image persists as the
flowing strings re-enter, section by section. Yet the playing
also evinces plenty of refinement: the Trio in Part III, for
two flutes and harp, is limpid and delicate, remaining so as
its central section moves into higher gear. The players are deservedly
identified as Daniel Pailthorpe and Sarah Newbold, flutes, and
Skaila Kanga, harp. Throughout the performance, rhythms are animated,
with neat dovetailings among the various orchestral sections;
the only flaw - and you'd have to be listening for it - is the
occasional awkward grumble from the bass strings.
French singing, on the other hand, would not be something necessarily
to emulate - those wondering at the reasons are urged to consult
Richard Miller's English, French, German, and Italian Techniques
(Scarecrow Press, Metuchen NJ, 1977) - and fortunately,
that doesn't happen here: the blended, full-bodied tone of the
Corydon Singers represents the best of the British choral tradition.
In L'Adieu des Bergers à la Sainte Famille
rich choral sound, backed unobtrusively by the orchestra and
enhanced by the ambient acoustic, exemplifies devotional singing
of the best sort. Yet the same singers make the light, airy fugue
of "Que de leurs pieds
" (disc 2, track 7) as
springy as anything in Handel - though the nervously chirping,
woodwind-dominated interlude that follows thoroughly dispels
The solo line-up is strong. I associate Jean Rigby's singing
with a rich, contralto-like timbre, so it's a pleasant surprise
to hear her float the lullaby in such a tender, spinning head
mixture. She and Gerald Finley, a firm, sensitive baritone, make
a warm, loving pair of parents for the Christ Child. Oddly, Rigby
sounds more diffuse in the mid-range writing of "Dans
cette ville immense
" in Part III, which she should have
found more congenial, and her final high cadence in that movement
betrays some strain.
At the start of Herod's solo scene, Alistair Miles is unsteady
on sustained tones - an oratorio bass caught just after the "sell-by" date,
perhaps. As the monologue progresses, however, Miles brings it
such a degree of reflective nuance that one actually ends up
feeling sorry for the man. Gwynne Howell is an authoritative,
sympathetic Père de Famille
, sounding less thewy
and constricted than he did in the 1980s for, say, the Solti Messiah
here plays a lesser role than did
the ubiquitous narrators of early Baroque oratorio, Berlioz preferring
to move his story forward through the dramatis personae -
of which is the orchestra! In the two important solos connecting
Parts II and III, John Aler sings ardently, with the right sort
of 6/8 swing. Against this are the mild debits of regular, unsubtle
stresses - which aren't Gallic, either musically or linguistically
- and the occasional white high note. He also drives the vowels
a bit hard in the Epilogue.
Sonically, this recording strikes an ideal balance between definition
and resonance. The aforementioned ambient acoustic colors and
warms the overall sonority, without losing clarity of orchestral
and choral detail; one wishes that the engineers at Chandos and
Nimbus could have achieved such results. The perspective on the
solo voices is ideal.
The "Dyad" series is Hyperion's answer to the various
two-for-one reissue packages from Universal (Double Decca, Philips
Duo). At such prices, especially, this ought to be in your collection
- it's a performance to love and to cherish.
Stephen Francis Vasta