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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Les nuits d’été [28:33]
Roméo et Juliette - Scène d’amour [16:48]
La mort de Cléopâtre [20:05]
Karen Cargill (mezzo)
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Robin Ticciati
rec. 1-4 April 2012, Usher Hall, Edinburgh. DSD
French texts and English translations included
LINN CKD 421 [65:48]

I have heard and greatly enjoyed two Brahms discs conducted by Robin Ticciati on the Tudor label (choral works & Serenade 1 and the Haydn variations). However, I have not caught up with his recording of the Symphonie fantastique with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, which was greeted with great enthusiasm by Dan Morgan and Simon Thompson. I was keen to make up for lost time, therefore, when this new Berlioz disc arrived for review.
Often when reviewing a disc one leaves the verdict until the end. There are times, however, when there’s no point in prevaricating; one may as well nail one’s colours to the mast at once. This is one such occasion: this is an outstanding disc. I’ve heard many very fine accounts of Berlioz’s ravishing song-cycle and there are certain ‘market leaders’, among which the classic accounts by Régine Crespin and Dame Janet Baker would warrant the first mentions. However, even if Karen Cargill may not quite challenge the supremacy of those two great singers, this recording of Les nuits d’été is one that made me listen with fresh ears.
Miss Cargill sings very well indeed both here and in La mort de Cléopâtre, matching her tone to the varying demands of the music with great intelligence and deploying a fine range of vocal colours. I wasn’t entirely convinced by her French pronunciation at times but this is not a major issue. What gives this performance of Les nuits d’été its special character is the sound of the orchestra. One is used to hearing the work played by a full symphony orchestra. Here, however, the SCO fields a string section that numbers 8/6/4/4/2. That means that the wind and brass parts come through very naturally and easily and that there’s a delightful transparency to the orchestral textures at all times. One has heard revelatory accounts of Berlioz involving period instruments under the batons of conductors such as Sir John Eliot Gardiner and Paul McCreesh (review) but here Robin Ticciati reminds us triumphantly, just as the late Sir Colin Davis did, that a well-balanced skilful orchestra playing on modern instruments can do just as much justice to the subtle, original timbres of Berlioz’s orchestration.
So, for example, ‘Villanelle’ is as light and buoyant as you could wish. The orchestral sound is light on its feet and delicate and Karen Cargill’s timbre is delightful. ‘Le spectre de la rose’ is wonderfully languid at the start and at its conclusion - and how right Julian Rushton is to point out in his excellent notes the comparison with the Scène d’amour which we are to hear later. In this second song Miss Cargill’s singing is sensuous and expressive and at “Et j’arrive du paradis” she unleashes passionate tone, which is just right. At the start of ‘Sur les lagunes’ I love the grainy string tone that Ticciati gets his players to produce; it really catches the ear as do the arresting interjections of the hand-stopped horns in the second verse. Karen Cargill’s singing is vivid and ardent. It is, perhaps, in ‘Absence’ that the benefits of using small orchestral forces are most conspicuously reaped. There’s a wonderful sense of intimacy about the performance of this exquisite song which I can’t readily recall that I’ve heard equalled. I could mention comparable delights in the remaining two songs but I hope that by now I’ve said enough to convince you that however many recordings of these great songs you possess you must hear this one as well.
Ever since I had the chance to take part in a performance of it as a member of my university’s orchestra over forty years ago I’ve loved the Scène d’amour from Roméo et Juliette. In those days I hadn’t really got the Berlioz ‘bug’ - that came later - but it remains a firm personal favourite among his music. As with Les nuits d’été I have some fine performances of this piece in my collection, including several as part of the complete score, yet I found this newcomer something of a revelation. Here, more than in Les nuits d’été the listener is, perhaps, more likely to miss the presence of a normal-sized symphony orchestra string section. However, if you are willing to forego a rich carpet of string tone - and I suggest that you should - the rewards are great. Once again, it’s the intimacy and the transparency of the textures that make the performance so beguiling. Right at the start, Ticciati and his players evoke beautifully the impression of a garden on a warm, sultry night. The scale of the orchestral sound suggests to us that this is a small, walled garden. Throughout this performance the textures are clear and one can relish the subtlety of Berlioz’s orchestral imaginings. There’s interpretative imagination at work here, too, as we can hear, for example, in the delivery of those cello recitative passages just before that wonderful extended melody for flute and cor anglais begins (at 6:51). That tune is unfolded in a very convincing way. Ticciati is properly expressive but he keeps the music moving forward most persuasively. Other conductors have taken this melody at a broader pace but Ticciati’s pacing reminds us that this piece is about a pair of young lovers. This performance of the Scène d’amour, often gossamer-light, is an incandescent one.
The programme is completed by a performance of La mort de Cléopâtre, which Berlioz composed in 1829 as his entry for the competition for the Prix de Rome. He was unsuccessful and, listening to this performance it’s not hard to see why for the music must have seemed outlandish and gratuitously radical to the conservatively-minded judges. I was impressed by Karen Cargill’s performance. She’s vividly dramatic at the very start - at which point the orchestral sounds are equally arresting. Later on in the first part, the Scène Lyrique, the passage beginning at “Actium m’a livrée” is full of bite and towards the end of the Scène Lyrique she fairly spits out the words “C’est par moi qu’aux Romains l’Égypte est asservie”. The second section, Méditation, begins with funereal timbres, superbly sounded in the orchestra and then soloist and orchestra excel in the dark music that follows. It’s not long, however, that Berlioz’s music rises in passion and dramatic force and Miss Cargill is blazingly intense in her delivery as she and Ticciati drive the music through its searingly dramatic final pages.
This is an outstanding disc and the performances have been captured in the sort of demonstration-quality sound for which Linn is well known. Engineer/producer Philip Hobbs has done a superb job. As I indicated earlier, the accompanying notes are very good indeed.
In summary, all Berlioz collectors should investigate this disc. As for me, I’m off to acquire a copy of Ticciati’s recording of Symphonie Fantastique without further delay.
John Quinn