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Berlioz: Les nuits d'ete, Harold in Italy; Love Songs / Anne Sofie von Otter

Berlioz / Mehldau / Mitchell / Legrand / Tamestit
Release Date: 02/25/2014 
Label:  Naive   Catalog #: 40035   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Hector BerliozBrad MehldauLéo FerréBarbara,   ... 
Performer:  Antoine TamestitAnne Sofie von OtterBrad Mehldau
Conductor:  Marc Minkowski
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Les Musiciens du Louvre
Number of Discs: 3 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Several of Berlioz’s works have been recorded using period instruments, among them the Symphonie Fantastique and the Grande Messe des Morts. However, I can’t readily recall many period performances of Harold en Italie. Sir John Eliot Gardiner made a very fine recording with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and violist Gérard Caussé for Philips but that was way back in 1994 and I’m not sure that it’s currently available. So Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble seem to have the field pretty much to themselves.

I’m happy to be able to report to anyone wanting a version of this work on period instruments that this new recording should more than meet
Read more their needs. Minkowski conducts with flair and his orchestra is excellent. Berlioz was one of music’s most innovative orchestrators and period instruments can bring out the tangy, original colours of his scoring exceptionally well. It’s a joy to hear the orchestral score in a performance of this quality; and that’s an observation that applies to the other music on the disc as well.

Right from the start of Harold the grainy strings and slightly rasping brass are a delight. When the solo viola enters (track 1, 2:59) the husky tone is beautifully set against the pastel shades of the accompaniment, chiefly the gently rippling harp and cooing clarinets. Hereabouts, Antoine Tamestit, a splendid soloist, conveys the melancholy air of Harold very well indeed. Later in the movement Minkowski whips up the music excitingly. Though I’m a great Berlioz fan I have to admit that the second movement doesn’t seem to me to be one of his most interesting movements. Moreover, the viola part is so uneventful that it’s not hard to see why Paganini, having commissioned the work, wasn’t interested in playing it – though, to his great credit he not only expressed admiration for the piece when he heard it performed but also paid Berlioz the agreed fee.

In the third movement Minkowski ensures that the music lilts most persuasively. There’s an excellent and entirely appropriate rustic feel in this performance. There’s tremendous drive and spirit in the finale. Minkowski and his orchestra dispatch the Orgy of Brigands with gusto and élan. Here, as elsewhere in the score, the primary colours of Berlioz’s score are brought to life vividly. I think it helps that the recording is quite close – though by no means oppressively so – and this, plus the transparency of the period instruments, means that a welcome amount of detail registers.

Les Nuits d’Été is equally successful. Anne Sofie von Otter is a singer I admire very much though sometimes she can seem a little cool. That’s not the case here. For example, she offers some ardent singing in ‘Sur les lagunes’. This is a darkly passionate setting and Miss von Otter really communicates expressive grief. By contrast, in the opening song, ‘Villanelle’, we hear her at her most engaging in a light, eager rendition of the song. In ‘Absence’ her control in the refrain ‘Reviens, reviens, ma bien-aimée’ is wonderful – as is that of the supporting players. She and Minkowski combine to invest ‘L’Île inconnue’ with a surge of buoyant energy. This delightful, happy reading is a fine end to an excellent account of the cycle. Once again the orchestra more than plays its part in the success of the performance. The lively tempo and alert playing in ‘Villanelle’ is a delight – especially the chattering woodwinds. At the start of ‘Le Spectre de la rose’ the grainy strings under the unison flute and clarinet provide a lovely mixture of timbres, supporting the singer’s poised delivery of a beautiful, sustaine d line. The nutty orchestral timbres are an important feature in ‘Sur les lagunes’.

Finally, to complete our pleasure, Miss von Otter and Antoine Tamestit come together to give a fine performance of ‘Le Roi de Thulé’. Here the plangent viola tone is a perfect foil for von Otter’s gently wistful singing.

This is a very fine disc and also a fascinating one which I urge all Berlioz admirers to hear. Not only are the performances extremely good but also the production values are high. This applies to the recorded sound, which, as I’ve already indicated, is good. Even more does it apply to the sumptuous booklet which is beautifully illustrated. The booklet also includes, in addition to a useful note, an extract from Berlioz’s Memoirs concerning Harold en Italie.

This is one of the most stimulating Berlioz releases that I’ve heard in recent years.

-- John Quinn, MusicWeb International
reviewing the original release of Les nuits d'ete and Harold in Italy, Naive 5266

Anne Sofie von Otter is not at her first crossover album. Back in 2001, she recorded a disc with Elvis Costello, and in 2006, did an album of ABBA covers. So this new recording with Brad Mehldau doesn’t come as a big surprise. It marks von Otter’s migration to the Naïve label, however, and it seems that this French label is banking on developing her first and foremost as a non-classical singer. Time will tell.

As for Brad Mehldau, he is one of today’s most inventive jazz pianists, and is not only prolific, but very popular. He released an album in 2006 with Renée Fleming called Love Sublime, which featured songs that he penned. While it doesn’t seem to have been a big success - Mehldau’s attempts at modern lieder on that disc are perplexing at best - he has continued to write songs that go outside the jazz genre.

Hence this set, which features two discs: the first of original songs by Mehldau, and the second which contains 13 popular songs, ranging from a Lennon/McCartney tune (Blackbird), to some Swedish songs, by way of a number of French chansons.

I’ve been a fan of Brad Mehldau’s music for many years, and own all of his albums. I’m very familiar with the style of his music - both the standards he performs, and his original compositions. I never really “got” the Fleming album; I found that the songs were trying too hard to be “art songs”, and I couldn’t get into the overall concept. So I was pleased that the Love Songs are much more accessible; gone is the exaggerated chromaticism that made the earlier songs a bit cringe-worthy. Here is the more romantic Brad Mehldau; the one who touches a nerve with his sweet, melodic music, but avoids the treacle. These seven songs, based on lyrics by e e cummings, Philip Larkin and Sarah Teasdale, show a composer more at home in a familiar genre than on his previous outing. Many of these wouldn’t make it onto mainstream radio stations, but their boldness isn’t excessive, and after a few listens, they become comfortable. Mehldau’s music is creative and is much more than mere accompaniment. He shows off his skills as pianist and arranger, here, often providing lush soundscapes, and, at other times, more staid melodies.

From the first song, von Otter shows that she is comfortable with this type of music. While I find her warbling vibrato just a bit too much in the first song, It May Not Always Be So, I got used to it in the others. It still annoys a bit, though, and I don’t feel that this much vibrato is necessary. But she sails through this music with her usual wonderful voice - I very much like her recordings of Mahler, Grieg and many other composers’ songs - and the two performers do fit together quite well. Because is a more traditional song, almost a ballad, with a slow, minimal piano melody and much more controlled vibrato from von Otter.

Some of the songs can be a bit harsh, but nothing like the songs Mehldau wrote for the Fleming disc. Child, Child, for example, features a fragmented rhythm and some chromaticisms that may shock those who buy this set for the second disc. Twilight comes out with some interesting arpeggios on the piano, behind just-barely-tonal vocals.

So on to disc two; the pop disc. von Otter is a consummate singer, and she moves smoothly into this genre, notably with impeccable French diction. Oddly, this disc is at a noticeably higher volume than the first, and seems to be recorded in a different manner, with the voice much more present than on the first disc. This is not to say that the piano is relegated to the background, but Mehldau is clearly playing second fiddle here. Nevertheless, his accompaniment is excellent.

Von Otter cuts down on her vibrato for these pop songs; it’s a shame that she didn’t do the same for the first disc. Here, it sounds natural and balanced, and in a song like Joni Mitchell’s Marcie, it is nearly perfect. In fact, Marcie may be the best song on the pop disc, even though von Otter’s diction is a bit unnatural. Calling You, from the movie Bagdad Café, is beautiful as well. The performance of Blackbird, however, sounds a trifle twee, and von Otter sounds like she’s too far from the song; her voice just floats over the music instead of taking control of it. It should be noted that Mehldau’s improvisations on Blackbird, with his piano trio, are magnificent; he gets a brief solo here, which shows off his skills on the keyboard. In fact, he puts von Otter to shame, as his solo is so much better than her singing.

All in all, this set addresses three groups of people. Classical music fans who know von Otter’s work, and who may be tempted by this crossover album; jazz fans, familiar with Mehldau’s recordings; and people who are interested in pop standards well-sung by a woman with an excellent voice, accompanied by a wonderful pianist. If you fit into one of these groups you may like one or both of the discs. Personally, I very much like the Mehldau songs, but will probably not listen to the second disc very often. Interestingly, while this set is just over 79 minutes, and could fit on one disc, Naïve put it on two discs, so the music is separated. It is sold for the price of a single disc though.

Whatever your pleasure, there is much to appreciate here: a great mezzo-soprano, an excellent pianist, and some fine music.

-- Kirk McElhearn, MusicWeb International
reviewing the original release of Love Songs, Naive 5241 Read less

Works on This Recording

Harold en Italie, Op. 16 by Hector Berlioz
Performer:  Antoine Tamestit (Viola)
Conductor:  Marc Minkowski
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Les Musiciens du Louvre
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1834; France 
Les nuits d'été, Op. 7 by Hector Berlioz
Performer:  Anne Sofie von Otter (Mezzo Soprano)
Conductor:  Marc Minkowski
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Les Musiciens du Louvre
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1840-1841; France 
Love Songs by Brad Mehldau
Performer:  Anne Sofie von Otter (Mezzo Soprano), Brad Mehldau (Piano)
Avec le temps by Léo Ferré
Performer:  Brad Mehldau (Piano), Anne Sofie von Otter (Mezzo Soprano)
Pierre by Barbara
Performer:  Anne Sofie von Otter (Mezzo Soprano), Brad Mehldau (Piano)
Marcie by Joni Mitchell
Performer:  Anne Sofie von Otter (Mezzo Soprano), Brad Mehldau (Piano)
The Sound of Music: Something Good by Richard Rodgers
Performer:  Anne Sofie von Otter (Mezzo Soprano), Brad Mehldau (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Les Demoiselles de Rochefort: Chanson de Maxence by Michel Legrand
Performer:  Anne Sofie von Otter (Mezzo Soprano), Brad Mehldau (Piano)
Chanson des vieux amants by Jacques Brel
Performer:  Anne Sofie von Otter (Mezzo Soprano), Brad Mehldau (Piano)
Walking my Baby Back Home by Fred E. Ahlert
Performer:  Anne Sofie von Otter (Mezzo Soprano), Brad Mehldau (Piano)
Att angöra en brygga by Lars Färnlöf
Performer:  Anne Sofie von Otter (Mezzo Soprano), Brad Mehldau (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1965 
Dis, Quand Reviendras-Tu? by Barbara
Performer:  Anne Sofie von Otter (Mezzo Soprano), Brad Mehldau (Piano)
What are you doing the rest of your life? by Michel Legrand
Performer:  Anne Sofie von Otter (Mezzo Soprano), Brad Mehldau (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: France 
I'm Calling You (from Bagdad Café) by Bob Telson
Performer:  Anne Sofie von Otter (Mezzo Soprano), Brad Mehldau (Piano)
Blackbird by Paul McCartney
Performer:  Anne Sofie von Otter (Mezzo Soprano), Brad Mehldau (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: by 1968; England 
On the Town: Some other time by Leonard Bernstein
Performer:  Anne Sofie von Otter (Mezzo Soprano), Brad Mehldau (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1944; USA 

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