Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 (1830) [51:42]
La damnation de Faust: (excerpts) (1845-1846) [12:51]
I. Danse des Sylphes [5:42]
II. Menuet des Follets [2:17]
III. Marche hongroise [4:52]
Overture: Le corsaire, Op. 21 (1844) [8:37]
Overture: Béatrice et Bénédict, Op. 27 (1860-1862) [9:27]
Overture: Le carnaval romain, Op. 9 (1843-1844) [8:32]
Overture: Benvenuto Cellini, Op. 23 (1834-1837) [10:44]
Les nuits d’été, Op. 7 (1840-1841)* [30:18]
I. Villanelle [2:17]
II. Le spectre de la rose [7:04]
III. Sur les lagunes [5:25]
IV. Absence [6:06]
V. Au cimetière [5:42]
VI. L’île inconnue [3:44]
Symphonie fantastique rehearsal (in French) [43:15]
*Régine Crespin (soprano)
L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet
rec. Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland, September 1963 (Les nuits
d’e´te´), December 1964 (Faust, overtures), November 1967 (symphony:
performance and rehearsal). ADD
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0053 [3 CDs: 64:33 + 68:26 + 43:15]
This Ansermet Edition is like a good rummage in the attic, turning up forgotten treasures and bringing back fond memories. And just when you think the last layer of dust has been blown off or the final cobweb brushed aside, along comes another discovery. Ansermet’s Berlioz certainly fits into the latter category; yes, it’s a bit of a potpourri, but there’s a complete Symphonie fantastique – including a rehearsal disc – and the incomparable Régine Crespin in Les nuits d’été. And if that weren’t enough, we get a fistful of overtures as well. Great expectations, but does this set actually deliver?
The Symphonie fantastique has been well served on disc; among the most memorable recordings are those from Sir Colin Davis – the Philips/Concertgebouw account a deserving classic – Bernstein on EMI and, for HIPsters, there’s always John Eliot Gardiner (Philips), Sir Roger Norrington (Hãnssler) and, most recently, Jos van Immerseel (Zig Zag). Sadly, ubiquity has taken its toll on this piece, both on disc – ArkivMusic lists more than 150 versions – and in the concert hall. This may be one reason for the derision – sometimes hostility – directed at the piece on internet forums and message boards. And while the Symphonie fantastique has had its share of average performances, in the right hands the sheer originality and flair of this music is apt to take one’s breath away.
It’s clear from the outset that Ansermet is going to play the symphony straight, with no added histrionics. The recording is warm and detailed, upper strings silky and plucked basses nicely rounded. In many ways this is the classic Decca sound, without any of the sonic nasties I’ve encountered on other reissues; that said, perspectives are somewhat exaggerated here, the timps especially so. One just has to listen to Davis and the Concertgebouw – much more sensibly balanced – to sense the febrile nature of this music. After all, it’s marked agitato ed appassionato, and that just doesn’t come through under Ansermet. Moreover, Sir Colin constantly reminds us of Berlioz’s keen sense of drama and astonishing ear for new sonorities.
Ansermet can usually be relied upon to add spring and elegance to any rhythm, and so he does in the dance music of the ball. The playing is very polished – the two harps beautifully caught – but where’s the delirium in this waltz? It’s partly a lack of colour – Davis is much more creative with his palette – but it’s also about Ansermet’s rather fastidious approach to the score. Even in the countryside he seems reluctant to shed his suave, metropolitan self and surrender to its rustic charms. That inflexibility, evident in the phrasing of this movement, is redeemed to some extent by the lovely strings and well-integrated woodwind. Sadly though, it’s not enough to lift one’s flagging spirits, the dry rattle of the approaching storm nowhere near as menacing as it can be.
The ‘March to the Scaffold’ isn’t too memorable either, the cat-calling brass rather less taunting than usual. Above all, one really misses the cumulative tension that Davis and his Dutch players bring to this music, that inexorable sense of doom that ends with a reprise of the idée fixe and the fall of the blade. No, this death march really needs to lurch and sway more, but Ansermet is much too well-mannered for that. Ditto in the ‘Witches’ Sabbath’, where even the harpies’ cackle seems curiously muted. And while Ansermet’s disembodied bells are an acquired taste, the OSR brass are splendid in the grim Dies irae.
So, not a terribly good start to the set, although listeners whose French is rather better than mine might well find the accompanying rehearsal disc enlightening. Ansermet doesn’t micro-manage the orchestra as much as some, singing to emphasise the important phrases. Clearly, articulation and rhythm are important to him, and the OSR respond well to his relaxed manner. He does take the brass to task in ‘March to the Scaffold’ – they sound very raw and elemental on their own – and I just wish some of that intensity had carried over to the final performance.
Thankfully, the three excerpts from La damnation de Faust bring out the best in this conductor. The ‘Danse des Sylphes’ is first – not the ‘Menuet des Follets’, as stated in the booklet – and it’s seldom sounded so diaphanous, the effect so Mendelssohnian. It’s also very three-dimensional, but for all its loveliness the piece is spoilt by a wholly artificial balance. Listening to Davis and the LSO – part of the 9-CD Symphonic Dramas box on Philips 462 252-2 – the contrast couldn’t be more striking; not only is the balance more believable but the quiver and tremble of Berlioz’s supernatural universe is much better realised.
As for the minuet, Ansermet’s rhythmic instincts – and fine pizzicato playing from the OSR strings – make for a pleasing performance, although tuttis are a little bright. These excerpts emerge more as orchestral showpieces, and that’s certainly true of the swaggering ‘Marche hongroise’. In Ansermet’s hands the music struts and prances to great effect, the splendid bass drum very vividly caught as well. Now here the conductor really does convey a sense of rising excitement, the work ending in a bright fizz of cymbals. A pity the piece seems to fade so abruptly. The drier Philips recording for Davis is less self-consciously ‘hi-fi’ but it’s no less thrilling for that. The LSO are in fine fettle too, and more than a match for their Swiss counterparts.
There are some fine collections of Berlioz overtures, but Davis’s RCA/Dresden disc – recorded in 1997 – is mildly disappointing. Indeed, one senses the proselytizing flame that burns so bright in his Berlioz recordings of the 1960s has dimmed somewhat, and that applies to his recent LSO Live cycle as well. No such qualms about David Zinman, now at the helm of the Zurich Tonhalle. His Baltimore disc of Berlioz excerpts – including Le corsaire and the overture to Benvenuto Cellini – is well worth hearing (Telarc CD-80164). Ansermet’s reading of the former is no less thrilling, the OSR playing with plenty of precision and bite. The Decca recording hardly shows its age – it dates from 1964 – although the sound does harden a little in the tuttis.
Curiously for a label that’s associated with hi-fi spectaculars, Telarc provides a refined, nicely nuanced sound that makes the Decca disc sound rather tizzy by comparison. Zinman is also more restrained – he doesn’t drive Le corsaire as hard as Ansermet does – but in terms of sheer excitement Ansermet takes the palm. Honours are more evenly divided in Cellini, the Swiss band playing with real passion and sweep. Indeed, the sense of drama so lacking in the symphony is very much in evidence here. It’s a very persuasive performance, but for that extra spurt of adrenaline – and the sound of Telarc’s fabled big bass drum – Zinman is hard to beat.
Ansermet’s Le carnaval romain benefits from taut rhythms and plenty of thrust, but some may find the bright climaxes and the conductor’s tendency to press the music a little too hard make for a rather fatiguing listen. By contrast, the light, dance-like rhythms of the overture to Béatrice et Bénédict are delectably done. This is a delightful, energetic performance and a reminder that for all the cavils and caveats expressed here, Ansermet hasn’t lost his magic touch. In fairness, given the range of music on these reissues – and the two decades or more over which they were recorded – it’s only to be expected that some pieces are more successful than others.
There can be absolutely no doubt about the success of his Les nuits d’été with soprano Régine Crespin in glorious voice. Some listeners may already know these from one of many incarnations – the most recent a 24/96 remaster on Decca Legends 460 973-2 – but for those who don’t, they are mandatory listening. In ‘Villanelle’ Crespin is in full flood, shading her voice most sensitively in the muted loveliness that is the start to ‘Le spectre de la rose’. Hers really was a unique sound, clear-toned and unerringly focused. The recording, good as it is, does add a touch of steel to the voice, though.
Such is Crespin’s artistry that any quibbles seem entirely irrelevant. How fearless she sounds in ‘Sur les lagunes’, but really it’s Berlioz who continually astounds with the simple beauty of his writing. Surprisingly, the Eloquence transfer hardly differs from the Legends one, the latter perhaps clarifying textures a little. In fact, some may find the Eloquence sound slightly warmer and weightier, especially in the denser textures – at the start of ‘Absence’, for instance. That said, the presentation of Crespin’s voice seems little different.
So, another worthy addition to the growing list of Ansermet reissues, even if this set is rather more variable than earlier ones. On the whole, the recordings are easy on the ear, the playing is good and the liner-notes – by François Hudry – are excellent. Can there be much left in the attic, I wonder? I certainly hope so.