Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Roméo et Juliette (1839, rev. 1847) [92:32]
Symphonie fantastique * Op. 14 (1830) [53:47]
Regina Resnik (contralto); André Turp (tenor); David Ward (bass)
London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Pierre Monteux
Vienna State Opera Orchestra/René Leibowitz*
rec. July 1958, Mozartsaal, Konzerthaus, Vienna*; June 1962, Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London. ADD
Originally released on Westminster Records
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON PRESTO CD 471242-2 [76:02+73:16]
A “Westminster Legacy” re-issue, this Berlioz double-bill CD enjoys really extraordinary sound for its era. Every instrument comes through with great clarity, in balance with the others. There's a minimum of hiss and a real sense of space around the music. Unfortunately, that very lucidity of texture also reveals a degree of roughness and imprecision in the Viennese orchestra, especially in the syncopated finale of the “Symphonie fantastique” but that is a minor cavil in comparison with the musicality of Leibowitz’s direction.

This recording of that symphony might not have quite the drive and snap of articulation in the faster passages heard in celebrated rival recordings from the same era by Munch and Ormandy. That said, the lyrical sections, especially the “Scène aux champs”, which can sag in the wrong hands, especially at the relatively slow tempi chosen here, emerges as one of the most satisfying I have ever heard: highly atmospheric and convincing. The only other passages which lack a little in tension are within the first movement, where I miss some of taut nerviness those other conductors generate, but overall this is a superb account which ensures that the listener forgets that this symphony has become something of a warhorse.

As for the Shakespearian fantasy, the LSO under Monteux plays absolutely beautifully, yet even they are upstaged by the verve and attack of the chorus, who sing in excellent French and sound as if they are relishing every moment of their contribution. The climactic chorus is terrifically rousing.

I have read criticism of Monteux sometimes sounding old, tired and routine in his later recordings. He was indeed 87 at the time of this recording and died only two years later, yet he evinces no sign of waning powers: the ecstasy of the love music and the drama of the tomb scene both emerge triumphant, and the frequent quicksilver episodes are never lethargic.

His three soloists are excellent: Regina Resnik is a tad mature and occasionally even a little hoarse of tone but she is steady and expressive in her narrative. André Turp is light, fleet and a genuinely idiomatic Gallic tenor. Best of all is smooth, sonorous, authoritative, Scottish bass David Ward’s Père Laurence, reminding us what a fine artist he was. He sings in good French but makes one minor error, mispronouncing “crucifix” with an Italianate “ch”.

I have not found there to be too many successful recordings of this work; too often they are compromised by some flaw in casting or an inability to unite what can become a diffuse, sprawling and even unbalanced work, for all its many incidental beauties. However, this one vies for quality with my two favourites under Ozawa and Maazel, both of which are currently hard to find.

A full French text and an English translation are provided.

Ralph Moore

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