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Berlioz romeo 2176402
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Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Roméo et Juliette, Symphonie dramatique, Op.17 (H79) (1839, rev. 1847)
Les nuits d’été, Op.7 (1840)
Jessye Norman (soprano); John Aler (tenor); Simon Estes (bass)
The Westminster Choir
Philadelphia Orchestra/Riccardo Muti (Roméo)
Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano)
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli (Nuits)
rec. 25-28 January 1986, Memorial Hall, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, DDD (Roméo); August 1967, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, August, ADD (Nuits)
No texts
Presto CD
WARNER CLASSICS 2176402 [2 CDs: 127]

I am a great Berlioz devotee, very fond of his Roméo et Juliette and an admirer of the artists featured on what was originally an EMI Gemini double CD – but for some reason I never acquired or even listened to it. It has now been re-issued by Presto.

Let me first dispose of its coupling. Janet Baker’s Les Nuits d’été is such a “classic of the gramophone” that I scarcely need to say more beyond referring you to my survey of that song cycle, in which I placed it among my top recommendations. However, I must point out that although Warner has recently impressively remastered it as part of their reissue of Janet Baker’s songs in the set of Barbirolli’s ‘The Complete Warner Recordings’, this is the older EMI issue whose sound, while by no means bad, is not as full, bright or clear as the new remastering which has greater depth, less hiss and no hint of peaking or distortion.

Roméo et Juliette is an odd, hybrid work but one which successfully captures, I think, the atmosphere of the original by Berlioz’ adored Shakespeare. My favourite recordings for many years have been those by Ozawa and Maazel, although there are also highly recommendable versions by Monteux (see my review), Munch and Inbal (I am put off all three of Davis' recordings by his frantic speeds and some inadequate soloists). This seems to me to be as good; the digital sound is first-class and Muti goes off like a rocket with the fastest account of the opening combat on record – and the Philadelphia Orchestra, to its credit, keeps up. The Westminster Choir sings delicately in excellent French and despite his penchant for driven, energised tempi, Muti gives them plenty of space to caress the words of their narrative. The soloists could hardly be bettered: the versatile Jessye Norman here exploits the warm lower reaches of her soprano Falcon; her voluptuous tones are well suited to her music. She has both power and finesse and of course her French is impeccable. I have long admired John Aler’s sweet, flexible, lyric tenor and he sings his quicksilver Queen Mab aria very adroitly; he is also clearly a French song specialist. While more beautiful voices have sung Père Laurence, Simon Estes has a grainy, authoritative bass and commands respect as the well-meaning Friar. The climax of the work is properly grand and imposing.

Central to this work is the love music; but to my ears Berlioz wrote few things more passionate and soulful than the music for the “Roméo seul” number and it sets the tone for a sweep of simply sublime music which transports the listener on a wave of inspiration through the ball to that “Scène d’amour“. Muti and the Philadelphia play it superbly, perfectly captures the bittersweet melancholy and ecstasy of doomed young love.

(My CD 1 had a flaw: it cut off at 3:06 on track 9, the last track and I am hoping that was peculiar just to my review copy. We queried it with Presto, who kindly sent a replacement very quickly and have undertaken to do so for anyone who has a similar issue.)

Ralph Moore

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