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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 from Qobuz.

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 – review and DL News 2014/10).

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 and DL 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 background.

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.

Brian Wilson

 




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