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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869) Berlioz Odyssey: The complete Sir Colin Davis recordings
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis LSO LIVELSO0827 CD & SACD [16 discs: 1127:54]
For most listeners of my generation, the prime recommendation for recorded performances of the works of Hector Berlioz will have been the ‘Colin Davis cycle’ produced by Philips during the 1960s and 1970s. The cycle was far from absolutely complete, but it did provide representation on disc for all of the composer’s major works, bringing us pioneering recordings of Les Troyens and Benvenuto Cellini (omitted from earlier collections of Berlioz repertory such as those by Charles Munch and a number of would-be successors). This box represents the return by the conductor to the same repertory in a series of live concerts in London beginning in 2000 and continuing for twelve years. It is not as wide-ranging as the Philips cycle – substantial works missing here include the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale, Lélio, all of the concert overtures and Les nuits d’été – but it does serve to illustrate the later thoughts of a conductor whose association with the music of Berlioz had extended throughout a long and illustrious career.
The quality of the Philips cycle had always been somewhat of a problem, however. Not all the singing was of the standard of uniform excellence that might have been desirable. And there had been difficulties too with the recorded sound in some of the issues. When recording the Grande Messe des morts, for example, the engineers clearly took fright at the resonance of the chosen venue in Westminster Cathedral, placing their microphones so close to the performers that individual voices in the chorus sometimes obtruded and the sense of echoing vast spaces that the composer clearly considered an essential part of his conception was lost (even though the remastering for CD improved considerably on the original LP sound). Here the recording is taken from live performances in the even more cavernous acoustic of St Paul’s Cathedral, and the recording engineers have wisely – and properly – taken the decision to pull back their equipment from the vast body of performers and to allow the sense of grandeur (even in the more quietly scored passages) to take its proper place in the scheme of things. This can be sensed even in the still ecstasy of such movements as the Sanctus, where the distantly placed voice of Barry Banks avoids the sense of strain that was so evident in Ronald Dowd’s delivery in the Philips recording. Unfortunately, however, the remainder of the performances here were made in the very un-resonant acoustic of the LSO’s own Barbican Hall, and the results are far less happy, especially in the more heavily scored passages (and in Berlioz, these come thick and fast).
It was a dislike for the actual sound of the orchestra as evidenced in their other live recordings (rather than the playing itself) which led me to avoid earlier acquaintance with these CDs when they were originally issued. I have to note that, although the ear does become accustomed to the more analytical sound of the detail, there remained many points at which I hankered after a greater sense of warmth and resonance. And there were also points at which some of the wanted detail was paradoxically muffled, such as the percussion in the ball scene of Roméo et Juliette, which yielded place not only to more recent recordings such as Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony on Decca but also to the Boston Symphony under Charles Munch in their old RCA reading, let alone either of the alternative Davis readings on Philips.
What Sir Colin Davis does achieve here, however, is a series of performances which comprehensively serves to demonstrate time and again the genius of the composer. There has been a tendency in recent years to emphasise the classical elements in Berlioz, using original instruments of the period, avoiding what are regarded as romantic excesses of interpretation, or simply seeking to steer clear of the perceived sense of bombast into which the composer’s sense of appropriate grandeur could sometimes lead him. But it seems to me clear, not least from the ‘quotations’ from his rehearsals which Berlioz introduced into his memoirs, that he was always seeking for exactly the Romantic sort of interpretation which some of his current performers seem so anxious to obviate or deny. And it is this sort of passionate engagement, playing the music for all it is worth without worrying unduly about any sense of classical propriety, which Sir Colin achieves in these, his ultimate performances of works with which he was so closely engaged throughout the course of his creative life.
The ‘odyssey’ begins of course with Berlioz’s best-known work, the Symphonie fantastique which Davis recorded many times during that creative life. The performance here does not differ in any significant way from his other interpretations – one would not expect it to – but it is perhaps worth noting that the second movement incorporates Berlioz’s later-added cornet solo, and that the bells in the finale are as so often about three octaves too high for what the composer clearly intended (at least if his alternative scoring for piano is to be believed). It is followed on the first disc by the first part of the choral symphony Roméo et Juliette, which is concluded on the second disc. Davis’s pacing of this score is close to perfection, both in the languorous luxury of the love scene and in the delicacy of the ‘Queen Mab’ scherzo, which avoids the helter-skelter speed of some rivals and thereby allows for the increase in tempo requested by Berlioz towards the end to be properly realised. The only real problem with this performance is the contribution of the Bulgarian bass Orlin Anastassov as Friar Laurence; his French sounds far from idiomatic, and although his tone is clean-centred there is a sense of blurring which renders his delivery of the great melody at “Jurez-vous” far from distinct. It is the moments of delicacy which impress most: the clarity of the antique cymbals and harps in the scherzo, or the offstage voices of the departing guests at the opening of the love scene, positively benefit from the Barbican acoustic.
The next two discs are devoted to the ‘dramatic legend’ Le damnation de Faust, one of the works in the original Philips cycle which suffered from some less than thrilling singing from a group of soloists not in their best form. Here Giuseppe Sabbatini is peerless in the title role, producing both sweet and stentorian high notes as required ranging up to a high C-sharp; and his delivery of the massive Invocation to Nature, although not always ideally co-ordinated with the conductor, has a real sense of both grandeur and menace. Michele Pertusi as his nemesis begins rather politely, but soon enters into the spirit of the enterprise and becomes as thoroughly devilish as one could wish during the later scenes. Enkelejda Skoda makes an excellent impression as Marguerite, although she too becomes slightly wayward during her final aria; David Wilson-Johnson as Brander does not (quite rightly) supply the ‘bass solo’ in the final scene, which is assigned as Berlioz specifies to a small number of choral basses. The Barbican acoustic, too, lends a sharp edge to the proceedings which is generally more successful in the rowdy episodes than the quieter ones; as a result, the rejoicing in Hell at the end sounds much more whole-hearted than the more pallid contemplation in Heaven – but that is as much a reflection on Berlioz’s music as on the performance here.
The pioneering 1969 Philips set of Les Troyens was probably the first opportunity that most listeners had of encountering Berlioz’s greatest musical achievement; I had previously owned the 1950s Scherchen recording of the Carthage acts, a pretty dismal performance not enhanced by even more dismal sound, as well as a semi-amateur radio performance in English of the Trojan acts, but earlier more-or-less complete recordings by Beecham and Kubelik did not become generally available until much later. Indeed, if critical reactions are to form any basis for judgement, Les Troyens has been exceptionally lucky on disc, since each succeeding recording that has been issued seems to have been generally hailed with enthusiasm as a decided advance on its predecessors in one way or another. The recording here, made over thirty years after Davis’s first, finds the conductor rather speedier in his traversal of the music than before; but the most significant changes are the results of the cast of singers. In the old set Berit Lindholm as Cassandra established a tradition of casting the prophetess with a full-scale Wagnerian soprano; here another Wagnerian and future Brünnhilde in the shape of Petra Lang steps up to the fore in the first two Acts, and I must admit that I find her no more attractive than Lindholm (also a famous and admirable Brünnhilde in her day). Cassandra should have a sense of warm and yielding femininity which is lacking here, with results that compare unfavourably with Jessye Norman who afterwards took on the role for the Metropolitan Opera (and can be heard on DVD). Michelle de Young is a darker-toned Dido than Josephine Veasey at the Royal Opera, but her shading of the music is equally convincing and she brings plenty of fire to her more vituperative moments; after her desertion by Aeneas, the dramatic quality of her performance knocks spots off her rivals.
In the original Philips set Jon Vickers was a truly heroic Aeneas, but Ben Heppner here is even finer. He may not have the sheer sense of presence that Vickers supplied when he declares his identity to Dido in Act Three, but the lyricism of his tone in Act Four is a real joy to hear and he fines down his voice to beautiful effect in the love duet. Kenneth Tarver as Iopas is properly ecstatic in his high-lying hymn to Ceres, and Toby Spence is delightfully dreamy as Hylas; both these tenors also surpass their Philips predecessors in the sheer sense of ease they bring to their music. The miscellaneous ghosts in Act Five, clearly standing at the back of the stage, lack the supernatural element as does Mercury at the end of Act Four; but the offstage brass effects are well managed, particularly in the celebrated Royal hunt and storm. The orchestral playing is superb too in the often-neglected ballet music.
This performance of Berlioz’s opera Béatrice et Bénédict reverts to Colin Davis’s original practice in the presentation of the score in his 1962 Oiseau-Lyre discs, omitting the spoken dialogue; for the Philips cycle in the 1970s he provided an abridged version of the Shakespearean text. The juxtaposition of the musical numbers is sometimes uneasy, but most listeners will probably prefer to jettison the extensive reams of French translation especially when there are so few Francophone singers in the cast. The lead singers are less obviously experienced than John Mitchinson and April Cantelo in 1962, or than Robert Tear and Janet Baker in 1979; but their freshness of approach pays dividends in its own right, and for once the Barbican acoustic seems appropriate for the smaller-scale forces that Berlioz requested for his little “caprice on the point of a needle.” Indeed, if one is prepared to accept the loss of the spoken dialogue, this may well be the best representation of this score in the catalogues.
Its charms are matched by the superbly supercharged performance of Harold in Italy which forms the substantial fill-up, an interpretation which for various and different reasons trumps any of Davis’s other studio recordings. But the recorded sound is less than ideally clear in places (the wisps of orchestral violin figuration in the first movement almost submerged); and although the solo viola playing by Tabea Zimmermann is rightly not spotlit, there was more sparkle in the sound of the finale’s “Orgy of the Brigands” in Davis’s first recording with Yehudi Menuhin (although there the close focus given to the star soloist seriously undermined the balance of the work).
Again, as in Béatrice and Bénédict, in Benvenuto Cellini we are confronted with the problems of what to do about the spoken dialogue which is ‘restored’ in this reconstruction of the Paris edition of the score. It seems that the decision was taken, as in Davis’s Philips recording, to avoid the substantial revisions which Berlioz made to both drama and music for the revival of the opera in Weimar in 1855; but in this live performance the spoken text is excised (along with some sections of the music itself) with the result that the duration of the work is some half an hour shorter than the Philips version, let alone the John Nelson recording which restored some passages which Berlioz probably never intended should be included in theatrical stagings at all. I must admit that I am puzzled that Davis (who rightly adopts Berlioz’s later revisions of such scores at the Symphonie fantastique, Roméo et Juliette and the Requiem) should have here shunned the Weimar edition which, at least in its original form, certainly represented the composer’s final thoughts on the score. At the same time, it is equally perverse that rival recordings of the opera which espouse the Weimer text adopt the contradictory approach of delivering the music in a classical (or at least pre-romantic) style. In the Philips set Davis employed a largely French cast; here, freed from the need to ensure idiomatic delivery of the spoken dialogue, he reverts to the use of a more polyglot body of singers with results that manage to avoid any sense of strain or acidity.
Berlioz’s quasi-oratorio L’enfance du Christ, with its restricted orchestral forces sometimes reduced down to a mere trio of two flutes and harp, fits more comfortably into the Barbican acoustic than many of the ‘plusher’ scores in this box; and the casting too is particularly happy, with Yan Beuron buoyantly floating his lines in the central section of the score. In some places the conductor pushes the music forward in an evident attempt to avoid the sense of Victorian sentimentality which can creep into some interpretations – we have heard more restful versions of the Shepherds’ Farewell than this – but he makes the most of the dramatic moments in this “sacred trilogy” which Berlioz wrote to his own dubiously historic text. Unfortunately the chorus of angels (whom Berlioz specifies should be placed offstage) sound very near at hand here, and the contrast between the offstage and onstage voices in the closing unaccompanied chorus is sacrificed.
The fill-up here is the overture to Berlioz’s early and fragmentary opera Les francs-juges, a piece that sparkles with originality and indeed at one time looked set to overtake all the composer’s other overtures in popularity thanks to its use as a TV theme tune; but it would have been nice all the same to have one or more of Berlioz’s substantial concert overtures based on works of British literature – King Lear, The corsair, or even the similarly early Waverley or Rob Roy.
I have already commented at some length on the recorded sound in the Requiem, so evidently an improvement on the sound that the Philips engineers obtained from the acoustic in Westminster Cathedral. Given the lengthy echo in St Paul’s this is understandably a monumental performance, allowing plenty of time for the massive forces to make their effect; and indeed, Berlioz seems to have expected this, since only in one movement (the Rex tremendae) does he allow for any really speedy tempi, and even there he provides plenty of silent bars to allow the overhang of echo to dissipate. All of this comes across here with superb realism.
By comparison, the massed sounds of the assembled forces in the Te Deum (which Berlioz described as the brother of the larger work) cry out for a similar sense of space which the Barbican is simply ill-equipped to provide. In the event, this is the least satisfactory of all these recordings, with the organ
which acts as a contrast and counterweight to the full orchestra sounding boxy and congested, and Colin Lee robbed of any sense of delicacy by his over-closed microphone placement in the beautiful Te ergo quaesumus. Even the final Judex crederis seems to lumber, and the contrasted acoustic of St Paul’s at the opening of the Grande messe des morts (the first two tracks of which follow on the CD) comes as a blessed relief.
It has almost become a standard litany when reviewing these compendious boxes of reissued material to lament the lack of booklet information, which is often reduced to a simple track listing or even to a brief summary of contents on the back of individual CDs with no booklet at all. It is pleasurable therefore to be able to report that LSO Live have included a substantial booklet with this set, containing the extensive programme notes by David Cairns together with translations into French and German. It was, I suppose, inevitable, given the vast quantity of vocal music included in the box, that no room would be available for texts and translations of the operas and other works, but these are available online, together with full biographies of the many performers featured. What is less inevitable, however, are the sheer number of errors in the printed material that is provided. In the track listing for Act Two of Béatrice et Bénédict, a whole raft of titles is bodily transferred from Act Five of Les Troyens, although the correct durations of the tracks are retained. Even more extraordinary is the substitution of part of the list of performers from Béatrice et Bénédict for those in L’enfance du Christ, so that we are informed bizarrely that Sarah Mingardo sings the role of Herod while Kenneth Tarver is even more startlingly cast as the Virgin Mary (the correct information is given in the list of performers appended to this review). While the programme notes inform us that the performance of the Requiem in 2012 marked the retirement of Sir Colin from his conducting with the LSO, the dates of recording of Roméo et Juliette are incorrectly given as 2013; they in fact took place in January 2000. On top of this, the cast list here is totally in error since it reports the solo singers from Gergiev’s LSO performance which was given in 2013 (again the correct details are given below) - and the obituary of James Mallinson (1943-2018), the producer of these recordings, reporting that he was responsible for the Antal Dorati set of the Haydn symphonies, perpetuates the incorrect information that this was the “first ever” complete cycle committed to disc. We really deserve better in a product that should have documentary value, both in its own right and as a representation of such a raft of performances which should always feature in the catalogues.
Nonetheless this is a most worthwhile collection, and for those who for one reason or another missed the earlier releases of the recordings, the compendium has an obvious value. So far, only one other record company – Warner Classics – has stepped up to the plate with a ‘complete Berlioz’ edition, and some of the performances included in that box hardly represent the best available even from the EMI stable (the substitution of Frémaux’s underpowered Requiem for the searing Previn version seems particularly perverse). It may be that the Philips Colin Davis cycle will emerge during this year while we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death, but even so, these later recordings still deserve their place in the lists.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
CONTENTS CD 1-2 Symphonie fantastique, Op.14 [57.17]
rec. Barbican, London, 27-28 September 2000 Roméo et Juliette, Op.17 [99.15]
Daniela Barcellona (mezzo-soprano): Kenneth Tarver (tenor): Orlin Anastassov (baritone): Guildhall School Singers: London Symphony Chorus
rec. Barbican, London, January 2000 CD 3-4 Le damnation de Faust, Op.24 [132.16]
Giuseppe Sabbatini (tenor) – Faust: Enkelejda Shkosa (mezzo-soprano) – Marguerite: Michele Pertusi (bass) – Mephistopheles: David Wilson-Johnson (bass) – Brander: London Symphony Chorus
rec. Barbican, London, 15 and 17 October 2000 CD 5-8 Les Troyens, Op.29 [239.29]
Ben Heppner (tenor) – Aeneas: Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano) – Dido: Petra Lang (mezzo-soprano) – Cassandra: Sara Mingardo (contralto) – Anna: Peter Mattei (baritone) – Chorebus: Stephen Milling (bass) – Narbal: Kenneth Tarver (tenor) – Iopas: Toby Spence (tenor) – Hylas: Orlin Anastassov (bass) – Hector: Tigran Martirossian (bass) – Pantheus: Isabelle Cals (mezzo-soprano) – Ascanius: Alan Ewing (bass) – Priam: Guang Yang (mezzo-soprano) – Hecuba: Andrew Greenan and Roderick Earle (basses) – Sentries: Bülent Bezdüz (tenor) – Helenus: Leigh Melrose (baritone) – Mercury, Soldier: Mark Stone (baritone) – Captain: London Symphony Chorus
rec. Barbican, London, December 2000 CD 9-10 Béatrice et Bénédict, Op.27 [82.19]
Enkelejda Shkosa (mezzo-soprano) – Béatrice: Kenneth Tarver (tenor) – Bénédict: Susan Gritton (soprano) – Héro: Sara Mingardo (contralto) – Ursula: David Wilson-Johnson (bass) – Somarone: Laurent Naouri (baritone) – Claudio: Dean Robinson (bass) – Don Pedro: London Symphony Chorus
rec. Barbican, London, 6 and 8 June 2000 Harold in Italy, Op.16 [42.22]
Tabea Zimmermann (viola)
rec. Barbican, London, 16-17 February 2003 SACD 11-12 Benvenuto Cellini, Op.23 [148.17]
Gregory Kunde (tenor) – Cellini: Laura Claycomb (soprano) – Teresa: Darren Jeffery (bass) – Balducci: Peter Coleman-Wright (baritone) – Fieramosca: Andrew Kennedy (tenor) – Francesco: Isabelle Cals (soprano) – Ascanio: Jacques Imbrailo (baritone) – Pompeo: John Relyea (bass) – Pope Clement: Andrew Foster-Williams (bass) – Bernardino: Alasdair Elliott (tenor) – Cabaretier: London Symphony Chorus
rec. Barbican, London, 26 and 29 June 2007 SACD 13-14 L’enfance du Christ, Op.25 [96.28]
Yann Beuron (tenor), Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), William Dazeley (baritone), Matthew Rose and Peter Rose (basses), Tenebrae
rec. Barbican, London, 2-3 December 2006 Les francs-juges: Overture. Op.3 [12.33]
rec. Barbican, London, 27-28 September 2006 SACD 15-16 Te Deum, Op.22 [48.37]
Colin Lee (tenor), Choir of Eltham College, London Symphony Chorus
rec. Barbican, London, 22-23 February 2009 Grande Messe de Morts, Op.5 [94.01]
Barry Banks (tenor), London Philharmonic Choir, London Symphony Chorus
rec. St Paul’s Cathedral, London, 25-26 June 2012