Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869) Harold en Italie (1834) [42:48] La mort de Cléopâtre (1829) [20:40]
Antoine Tamestit (viola)
Karen Cargill (mezzo)
London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. live, Barbican, London, 1 and 12 November 2013. DDD/DSD
No texts Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf booklet LSO LIVE LSO0760 SACD [63:09]
There’s a strong case to be made for preferring Harold
in Italy to the Symphonie Fantastique. We have not lacked
good recordings of either: for me in the case of Harold stretching
back to William Primrose and Thomas Beecham on a long-defunct Philips
Classical Favourites recording which – as far as I know – only made
it to CD as part of Sony's
admirable Beecham series.
The recording which replaced Primrose and Beecham in my collection,
the first which Colin Davis made, with Yehudi Menuhin as soloist, is
also hard to come by, immured in a 6-CD set (EMI Icons 4639892), though
it’s still available separately and inexpensively to stream or download
The most obvious comparison, however, is with Davis’s final recording
on a rival LSO Live album. (LSO0040 or LSO0046, 12 CDs: Bargain of
the Month –
DL News 2013/7). As Simon Thompson wrote in his review
of Gergiev’s Symphonie Fantastique, LSO Live are incredibly brave
even to contemplate competing against their own Davis recordings of
Berlioz. He was not alone is finding the result disappointing, so it’s
even more brave for them to release this Harold in Italy and
Cléopâtre recording so hard on its heels.
With Gergiev at the helm I was expecting a colourful performance with
plenty of energy, especially in the Orgy of the Brigands finale,
but the first three movements struck me as somewhat routine. Nor did
the orgy itself get off to the expected blistering start: it’s actually
a fairly tame affair, taking 12:56 overall against Davis’s 11:41 (LSO
Live), 11:43 (Philips) and 12:15 (EMI).
Those in search of a bargain will probably be well content with Charles
Dutoit in an idiomatic and very well recorded (DDD) performance on a
Decca Duo (E4553612, with a fine Symphonie Fantastique) until
they come to the finale which, as with Gergiev, could do with being
a bit more orgiastic. Similarly with the recent Naxos recording from
Leonard Slatkin you may find parts of the orgy a little tame (8.573297
Reviews of the live concert stressed the beauty of Antoine Tamestit’s
tone and the ideal balance which he achieved in this not-quite-concerto,
but on record he seems almost too willing to blend into the overall
sound-picture, while Gergiev seems to be trying too hard to play down
his reputation as a wild interpreter. Perhaps it sounded better on
the night because the audience could see the soloist.
If Colin Davis and his various soloists are a tough act to follow in
Harold, Janet Baker is an even tougher one in Cléopâtre
(budget twofer, Warner/EMI Gemini 3814932, with La Damnation de Faust).
Karen Cargill has already recorded this work for Linn (CKD421). Listening
to that Linn recording on a hot summer evening – an ideal time to hear
Nuits d’Été, also included – I was so entranced that I even forgot
Janet Baker and Suzanne Danco in Nuits d’Été (Decca Originals
4757712 – incredibly, not even available as a download: urgent search
for remainders recommended). It takes something exceptional to do that
and while I didn’t think that she quite recaptured those heights with
Gergiev, I would have proposed buying the LSO Live recording for her
contribution alone, except that the all-Berlioz programme on Linn makes
that a total winner (review
News 2013/11) and the fact that Cargill emerges more clearly there
than from the Barbican acoustic.
I listened to the 24/96 download from hyperion-records.co.uk.
On disc the recording comes as a hybrid SACD for around the same price
as the download, or even slightly less, but Hyperion also offer a less
expensive download in mp3 or 16-bit lossless which will appeal to those
not in search of SACD. In whichever format, the Barbican acoustic rather
than the recording quality seems to be the limiting factor. On balance
the acoustic seems much less problematic on the earlier Davis recording
for LSO Live, even though I have heard that only in mp3.
As so often happens, I listened again to the whole album last thing
in the evening in the lounge without any means of making notes, settled
back and enjoyed everything much more, especially the delicacy of the
opening scene-setting of Harold in the mountains and the Abruzzi
Serenade. Even the acoustic seemed less of a problem – perhaps
my ear had become more attuned in the way that it does with older recordings.
It also helps to have the volume quite a lot higher than usual, but
I still found it a problem when the viola or mezzo disappears into the
The quality of the booklet of notes partly atones for the shortcomings
of the performances but the lack of texts is a serious problem. I shall
still turn to Colin Davis, in one of his manifestations, for Harold
in Italy and to Janet Baker or to Karen Cargill’s earlier recording
on Linn for La mort de Cléopâtre.