Les Nuits d’été
are the two most famous – and arguably best – French song-cycles and there is no lack of alternative recordings. In the 1960s I bought my first version of the Berlioz cycle in an RCA recording with Fritz Reiner conducting and the young Leontyne Price as soloist. On the reverse was Falla’s El amor brujo.
I was mightily impressed by the soprano’s intensity and raw, animal power with thrilling chest tones which worked perfectly in Falla. I returned to that recording some six or seven years ago when I reviewed it coupled with other Iberian music – and I still liked it. The Berlioz also sent shivers down my spine, though I would have liked it more lyrical in places. Not until some time in the 1970s when I bought a reissue of the legendary recording by Régine Crespin with Ernest Ansermet conducting, did I realise that there were other ways of approaching these songs. Since then Crespin’s version has been my preferred choice and it is suitably coupled with Shéhérazade
which makes it an ideal comparison. There is another identical coupling as well that I rank as highly as Crespin’s and that involves Janet Baker and Sir John Barbirolli. It doesn’t seem to be available at the moment as a single disc, but both cycles are included in the 5-disc Icon box with Baker, which is filled to the brim with wonderful recordings. The ridiculously low asking price makes it close to criminal not to buy it. With two such masterly issues in the catalogue, what chances has this new disc to compete?
Quite big, I would say. Veronique Gens is a singer who always delivers well-conceived readings of whatever she takes on. She has a marvellous voice, she is French, which is an advantage in French repertoire, and her coupling is a work that doesn’t appear too often, either in concert or on record: the dramatic cantata Herminie
, which Berlioz wrote as a 25-year-old as his second attempt to win the Prix de Rome. He came second but got there two years later. Herminie
is interesting in several ways, one of these the fact that very early in the overture we hear the melody that a couple of years later became the idée fixe
in his Symphonie fantastique.
The text of Herminie
had been used before no fewer than four times for the Prix de Rome, but hardly so successfully. It is a rather long piece – 22 minutes in this recording – but such is the level of invention, power and drama that it never feels over-long. The recitatives are alive and theatrical and the melodic material attractive. The first aria is so typically Berlioz – no one else could have written it. He found his personal musical language very early. The second aria (Tr. 3) is fast and nervous, rather Gluckian – no wonder since Berlioz very early studied Gluck’s scores at the Paris Conservatoire library. In the third aria there is a breathlessly beautiful prayer. All in all this ‘mini-opera’ is a splendid achievement and the disc is worth buying for these 22 minutes alone. This recommendation implies that the interpretation of the cantata is also first class. Having seen Veronique Gens in opera I was well aware of her capacity as an actor, both visually and vocally, and this comes over splendidly here.
Les Nuits d’été
is not easy to bring off convincingly. There is always a risk of monotony since the four middle movements are slow. The outer movements are a shade more lively. Attempts have been made to solve this by performing the cycle with several contrasting voices, which was obviously Berlioz’s intention. In my experience this robs the music of unity of mood. It isn’t a continuous story but the songs must link emotionally. That’s what they do in Crespin’s and Baker’s recordings and that’s what they do in the case of Veronique Gens. One never gets the feeling of monotony in any of these three since each singer varies expression and injects diversity into the generally slow tempos in the middle songs. Veronique Gens also colours her voice exquisitely and creates a shimmering palette of verbal and tonal nuance. Villanelle
is light and springy, Le spectre de la rose
inward, intimate and Au Cimetière
mildly plaintive but just wonderful.
Ravel’s orchestral writing has a quite different lustre than that of Berlioz. Where the older composer is in the heart of romanticism, Ravel has adopted the vaguer contours of impressionism. He also adds not a few splashes of more exotic colour, learnt something from Rimsky-Korsakov but with more restraint. Shéhérazade
is a magical score and John Axelrod draws wonderful plying from the orchestra whose music director he has been since 2009. In this respect he matches Sir John on Baker’s recordings, while Ansermet, wonderful conductor as he generally was in French repertoire, has a less responsive orchestra at his disposal. Vocally all three singers are masterly and since Janet Baker’s French is wholly idiomatic there is little to choose in that respect. Readers who already own Crespin and Baker should try Gens as well. Sonically this new Ondine has some advantages over the competitors which were recorded 45–50 years ago. Anyway: to the top duo Crespin and Baker must now be added Véronique Gens.