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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Lélio, ou Le Retour â la vie (1831)
Joachim Bissmeier (narrator), Herbert Lippert (tenor), Geert Smits (baritone)
Wiener Singakademie
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Michael Gielen
rec. live 17 December 2000, Konzerthaus, Vienna
Texts in German, French and English
ORFEO C210071 [55:30]

Lélio is a sequel to the Symphonie Fantastique, which, like many sequels, fails to live up to the standard of its predecessor. Its subtitle is Le Retour â la vie (the return to life) and the basic conceit is that the hero of the Symphonie, whom we left for dead and whom we now learn is called Lélio, is struggling back to life after an emotional breakdown, goes through various mood changes, illustrated in music, and finally produces a piece of creative work. It is based quite closely on Berlioz’s own emotional life and, in particular, his passion for the Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson, whom in fact he subsequently married.

Berlioz wanted it performed after the Symphonie and said that together, the two works completed the Episode de la vie d’un artiste. Donald Tovey once said ‘Nothing will induce me to expose Berlioz by any such scheme . . . There are good things in Lélio, but its scheme is supremely absurd and its final fantasia on Shakespeare’s The Tempest is beyond redemption by the canonizers of Berlioz.’ Tovey had a point. This scheme is that Lélio provides a narration, which links together these six pieces of music which constitute the work. The first problem is that this narration is an awful piece of writing: turgid, bombastic and tedious beyond belief. The second is that the pieces of music were not written for the occasion but are a collection of pieces from Berlioz’s bottom drawer, which have no real link with one another, and which are in several cases leftovers from other works. Some of them are, however, rather good, as indeed Tovey allowed, and Berlioz was right to rescue them.

This performance by Michael Gielen does not seem to have been issued before. It is a live recording of a single performance in 2000 in Vienna. To cater to his audience, the narration is given in German, while the musical numbers are given in the original French, apart from the final Tempest Fantasia, which for some reason, Berlioz wrote with Italian words, which are, of course, used here. Joachim Bissmeier, a respected German actor, delivers the narration as eloquently as he can, but I cannot imagine the Anglophone listener wanting to hear it more than once, if that. Fortunately, it is separately tracked, so it can nearly all be left out. In a few places there is an interaction with the music, where of course it has to remain.

The first of the musical numbers is a charming song with piano accompaniment, Le pêcheur (the fisherman, a translation of a ballad of Goethe), interspersed with narration and a recall of the idée fixe from the Symphonie. The song itself is attractively sung by Herbert Lippert. Next we have the Choeur d’ombres, an evocation of the first ghost scene from Hamlet; the music is a reworking of the Méditation from Berlioz’s cantata Cléopâtre. This is a fine sombre piece. Its steady tread anticipates the Marche et Hymne from Les Troyens of many years later. Then we have the Chansons des Brigands. Brigands, or outlaws, had a curious fascination for Berlioz because of their supposedly easy life free of social constraints; they turn up again in Harold in Italy. This is a vigorous piece for solo baritone, fruitily sung by Geert Smits, and chorus, to some rather grisly words by the composer. Despite its energy, this is not one of the better works here. The next two pieces both derive from the cantata La mort d’Orphée: the Chant de bonheur, a beautiful number in Berlioz’s gentlest vein, with Lélio’s internal voice sung by the tenor instead of being spoken. The other piece from the cantata, La harpe éolienne, is orchestral only. The Aeolian harp was the Romantic period equivalent of the wind chimes of today: a set of strings stretched over a soundboard which would resonate in the wind. There are prominent parts for clarinet and harp; this is another gentle piece.

Finally, we come to that fantasia on The Tempest, so criticized by Tovey. This is much the longest work here. It is a choral work for a Choeur d’esprits de l’air, a chorus of airy spirits: of course, Ariel in the play was described as one. The chorus sing to Miranda about her approaching marriage to Ferdinand. This is perfectly valid idea, though what possessed Berlioz to give his choir Italian rather than French or even English words I do not know. The problem is that the piece has no musical coherence: it is a patchwork of ideas, individually interesting and even attractive, but just one thing after another. There was a scenario, which Berlioz expounded in a note, but it doesn’t help to know it – it is given in Hugh Macdonald’s book on the composer.

The musical performances here are very good, Gielen, whom we know better for his conducting of German works, proving himself at home with this very French creation. The recording is good, with the only sign of a live performance that I noted being a single cough. The booklet gives all the texts in French (Italian for the Tempest fantasia), English and German. For reasons which should now be obvious, there are not many rival recordings. Some conductors take Berlioz at his word and pair Lélio with the Symphonie Fantastique: these include Muti (review) and, among older recordings, Boulez, Martinon and Dutoit. (Colin Davis recorded Lélio for his Philips Berlioz cycle, but without narration; this recording was never issued separately on CD, and he did not return to the work.) The only other recent recording of Lélio by itself I am aware of is by Thomas Dausgaard with Danish forces on Chandos, which was liked by my colleague Michael Cookson (review). That would probably be the more practical choice for someone who does not want to duplicate the Symphonie, but Gielen would be very acceptable if you can cope with the narration in German.

Stephen Barber

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