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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Roméo et Juliette, Op.17 (1839) [94.57]
Béatrice et Bénédict (1862): Overture [8.11]
Le Roi Lear, Op.4 (1831) [15.14]
Marion Lebègue (mezzo-soprano), Julien Behr (tenor), Frédéric Caton (bass)
Choeurs et Soloistes de Lyon-Bernard Tétu
Orchestre National de Lyon/Leonard Slatkin
rec. 2014, Auditorium de Lyon, France
NAXOS 8.573449-50 [60.38 + 57.52]

Leonard Slatkin and his Orchestre National de Lyon continue to make their way through the symphonic works of Hector Berlioz which they began with their recording of the Symphonie fantastique in October 2012, which I described then as one of the best performances of the work on disc. My review was cited by Naxos on their release of Harold in Italy released in July 2014; but unfortunately I was not quite so enthusiastic about certain aspects of that later disc, citing the under-strength of the violin section at a few points despite the generally excellent recorded sound. I am happy to say that I have no such qualms about that issue in this new Roméo et Juliette, and indeed find the balances eminently satisfactory despite some relatively minor issues. The recording was made at much the same time as Harold, but for some reason has languished in the vaults for some five years.

While the recording of Harold in Italy was described as “live” (despite the lack of any evidence of an audience or applause) this Roméo is clearly a recording made under studio conditions, and this makes it possible to attempt to realise some of Berlioz’s theatrical effects implied by his instruction at the end of Part One that the chorus should leave the stage, presumably re-entering for Juliet’s funeral procession at the beginning of Part Three. This means that their offstage contributions during Part Two (depicting the departure of the guests after Capulet’s ball) are more distanced. It also means that a smaller chorus can be employed in Part One (Berlioz stipulates a “coro piccolo” of a mere twelve voices), which is then doubled by the mezzo and tenor soloists during their passages of recitative – another effect indicated by Berlioz in the score, but which I have never previously heard so noticeably adopted in performance. Slatkin also ensures that the pauses between the individual movements which make up the musical core of the symphony in Part Two are minimised – noting indeed that Berlioz does not indicate any pause at all at the end of these individual sections.

Throughout the performance, too, Slatkin shows himself sensitively aware of the elements in Berlioz’s score which are most original. That is, his dramatically inspired touches which not only illustrate the progress of the play in the Shakespeare version as amended by Garrick, but even determine the actual form taken by the symphonic development: not just in the graphic depiction of the death of the two lovers, but also in the rhapsodically free treatment of the balcony scene. There are a couple of points indeed where his praiseworthy attempts to match Berlioz’s extreme instructions for ppp actually subside almost below the threshold of hearing, as in the “backstage” sounds of timpani and tambourine revelry in the prelude to Capulet’s ball, or the extraordinarily quiet tintinnabulation of the antique cymbals during the Queen Mab scherzo (although their louder passages are clearly audible).

But these are minor quibbles in the context of an interpretation that is so fully alive to the events of the play that Berlioz depicts in his score. And Slatkin scores too in his praiseworthy refusal to begin the Queen Mab scherzo at too fast a pace, noting that despite Berlioz’s opening tempo indication of Prestissimo he then instructs the orchestra to take the recapitulation of the same material at “tempo I un poco piu presto” – thereby adding even greater agitation and excitement to the execution of the music. Indeed, the orchestral performance throughout is superlatively good and romantically engaged, while at the same time aware of Berlioz’s classical roots, which some modern interpreters have allowed to preponderate in music which is after all iconoclastic as well as being acutely aware of tradition.

The use of a small choir in Part One makes it possible to bring the singers slightly forward in the sound picture without overbalancing the whole, and their choral recitative describing the course of events in advance (together with brief snippets of the music to follow) then becomes properly engaging instead of merely didactic. The contributions of the mezzo and tenor soloists are also praiseworthy, clear and crisply delivered: Marion Lebègue totally avoids any of the hints of sentimentality that can afflict her “strophes” in more matronly performances, and Julian Behr is light and airy as well as pointed in his scherzetto. The lion’s share of the solo singing goes of course to Frédéric Caton, who as Friar Laurence has the unenviable task of reconciling the warring houses in Shakespeare’s extended final scene which Berlioz restored to the play after it had been excised by Garrick in his eighteenth-century productions. The definition of Caton’s singing completely avoids any sententiousness, and the manner in which he launches his big tune for the oath on ‘Jurez donc’ has none of the woofiness that can attend some performances, leading to a suitably grandiose climax.

The set is most sensibly rounded out with performances of Berlioz’s two Shakespearean overtures. That for his comic opera Béatrice et Bénédict, a confection of light froth and delicacy, is given a superlative performance by Slatkin and his orchestra with all the brilliance that one could wish. King Lear is much more like a ‘symphonic poem’ than a concert overture, although it was written several years before Liszt had coined that term to describe programme music of this type. In its attempt to encapsulate the course of the tragedy it in many ways naturally anticipates the idiom of Roméo et Juliette, and like the symphony it is given a rendition by Slatkin that makes the most of the unorthodox structure that results.

The booklet notes come in both English and French, and commendably Naxos include the texts of the sung items (not so extensive) in both languages. This is a most welcome addition to the Naxos catalogue, and to Slatkin’s Berlioz performances from Lyon; is there perhaps a recording of the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale to round out the symphonic cycle?

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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