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Berlioz nuits GRAMOLA99247
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La Nuit étoilé
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
La mort de Cléopâtre H. 36 (1829) [20:15]
Les Nuits d’été, Op 7 H. 81B (1840-1841) [28:43]
Augusta HOLMÈS (1847-1903)
Ludus pro patria: La Nuit et l’Amour (1888) [8:01]
Stéphanie d’Oustrac (mezzo-soprano)
Orchestre Pasdeloup/Wolfgang Doerner
rec. 5-7 December, 2020, Maison de l’Orchestre national d’Île-de-France, Maisons-Alfort, France
Texts and translations included
GRAMOLA 99247 [57:08]

In Berlioz’s writings, we find several envious comparisons of the orchestral establishment in Paris to those in other capital cities. One of those who “heard the call” was the conductor Jules Pasdeloup, who in 1861 founded “Les Concerts Populaires”, the first modern orchestral series in Paris. Among the composers featured at Pasdeloup’s concerts was Berlioz himself, and later the composer Augusta Holmes, who dedicated her symphonic poem Irlande to Pasdeloup. The Orchestre Pasdeloup is still with us, the oldest orchestra in France. It is self-governing and has no regular conductor. The musicians prefer to invite guest conductors to lead their performances.

To honor their 160th anniversary, the orchestra has produced a disc entitled La Nuit étoilée (Starry Night) – the title of Van Gogh’s famous painting, which is on the cover. The disc features three night-oriented works by Berlioz and Holmès. The musicians are joined by the prominent mezzo-soprano Stephanie d’Oustrac, and this disc is as much a homage to her as to them.

Augusta Holmès’s La Nuit et L’Amour (Night and Love) is a section of Ludus pro patria, a larger work for speaker, chorus and orchestra. The title can be translated as “Patriotic Games” in the ancient Greek sense of athletic competition in honor of a person or event, in this case the upcoming centenary of the French Revolution. The inspiration for the overall work was a painting by Puvis de Chavannes. In La Nuit et L’Amour, Stéphanie d’Oustrac appears not as singer but as speaker, reminding us of her dramatic ability and her vaunted perfect diction. She speaks without accompaniment, leading to the orchestral interlude itself. The music shows some Wagner influence, but one cannot mistake Holmès’s melodic line or orchestral coloring. It is a true example of La Belle Époque in music.

Stéphanie d’Oustrac appears in her usual role of mezzo-soprano in two Berlioz works. The earlier one, La mort de Cléopâtre (The Death of Cleopatra), was Berlioz’s third attempt to win the Prix de Rome awarded each year to a student of the Paris Conservatory as the official imprimatur of the Parisian musical authorities. Contestants were expected to write a cantata on a given poem. For his first two tries, Berlioz had written the ordinary, and expected, conservative and formulaic product but had not won. When he decided to set the required poem in his own way, the judges not only did not give him the prize but declared that no prize would be awarded that year. Interestingly, the ultra-conservative Cherubini was one of the few judges to vote for Berlioz’s cantata.

La mort de Cléopâtre may have shocked most of those judges, but to us it appears as a dramatic and psychologically apt portrayal of the last moments of the Egyptian queen. She veers from pride to fear that she has dishonored her ancestors to resignation to pride again. Stéphanie d’Oustrac is no stranger to Berlioz (review, review). Her voice cuts right through the orchestra and her somewhat burnished tone adds to the depth of Cleopatra’s personality. The orchestra plays powerfully, and all involved have an affinity for Berliozian melody and harmony. It should be pointed out that Berlioz did win the Prix de Rome on his fourth attempt, with another death, this time of Sardanapalus.

The songs that comprise Les Nuits d’été come from Théophile Gautier’s La Comédie de la mort, published in 1838. That was new poetry, and Berlioz set the poems as such, not as ancient texts. By 1841, they were all composed for voice and piano. In the next fourteen years, Berlioz provided orchestral accompaniments for them at various times, usually for his own concerts. The idea of a set of songs with orchestral accompaniment grouped around a single subject or to poems by a single author, frequently with musical connections between the songs, was new at the time. But in the years to follow Berlioz would inspire many composers, ranging from Strauss to Shostakovich, to adopt this form.

The first song, Villanelle, is a light and sprightly opening to the cycle, though I found that d’Oustrac took the song a little faster than I am used to. She truly shows her musicianship in Le Spectre de la rose, where she and the orchestra show the right combination of pathos and humor. As always, one is aware of her superb diction and declamation. In Sur les lagunes, a lament for lost love, d’Oustrac gets to the dramatic heart of the song without overwhelming the music or the text, especially in the crucial last verse. The fourth song, Absence, portrays a different type of sadness. Here the orchestra is as important as the singer, especially the strings, and Wolfgang Doerner is especially good here. Au cimitière is the most tragic of the six songs. I found that d’Oustrac did not bring out all the emotion in this song. On the other hand, her rendition of L'île inconnue is perfect, more serious than most, especially in the beautiful coda.

Wolfgang Doerner’s performance is one of nuance and perceptive accompaniment in all three works here, especially his featuring of Berlioz’s harmonies. He also gets a powerful sound from the orchestra, aided by the close-in but clear recording. Doerner has a relationship of more than thirty-year standing with the orchestra, and he knows how to utilize their strengths, especially their fine woodwinds. Doerner and d’Oustrac give outstanding performances of an imaginative program – who could ask for more?

William Kreindler

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