Notes and Editorial Reviews
A mixed bag of goodies making an ideal and economic start for anyone wanting to get to know Berlioz’s music.
This is a five and a half-hour mixed bag of goodies, but one which makes an ideal and economic start for anyone wanting to get to know Berlioz’s music. Low price means an absence of liner-notes and background, so a trip to the Hector Berlioz website, a copy of the Berlioz memoirs or David Cairns’ biography might be advisable. True there are some gaps (
L’enfance du Christ,
Damnation of Faust,
Nuits d’été or opera arias) which might have been filled with more thought (why include two renditions of the Prelude to the Trojans?), but nevertheless some choral rarities are there (Tantum ergo is for two sopranos, alto, female chorus and organ and Veni creator is a motet for three voices and chorus). I made a beeline for the Dutoit overtures (1997), which still impress by their sheer excitement. Berlioz, with his exceptional command of orchestration - his treatise on the subject confirms that - always manages to thrill at his most dramatic moments, whether it is a matter of tempo or orchestral colour. In the tradition of Charles Munch and Pierre Monteux, who were both wonderful conductors of Berlioz, Dutoit captures that sense of drama. Try the start of Carnaval Romain, the climax near the end of Le Corsaire, the subtle wit of the verbally duelling Beatrice and Benedict captured by the composer in refined woodwind solos. It will be the
Symphonie fantastique to which one is naturally drawn, and the New Yorkers give a virtuosic rendition under Mehta, after a cautious start. The Ball scene whirls along, achieving top speed in the final scales, but the two harps feature prominently in their only appearance in the work. The March to the Scaffold and ensuing Witches Sabbath are respectively sinister and evil – with a singularly demonic E flat clarinet leading the coven. One doesn’t naturally include Mehta among recognised Berlioz conductors, but this is a creditable contribution. What a revolutionary symphony this was, coming barely six years after Beethoven’s ninth.
Most of Berlioz is massive in concept and performance, which is why he had such a hard time of it getting performances, and encountered so much resistance in Germany - conservative Leipzig in particular. The second half of the twentieth century saw a willingness to splash out, encouraged by that arch-splasher-out of everyone else’s money as well as his own, Beecham, another fine Berlioz interpreter and champion. The ten sections of the Grande Messe des morts (or Requiem) are spread over a CD and a half, and produce some fine choral singing by the Cleveland Chorus. First performed in December 1837, in Berlioz’s own words, ‘the success of the
Requiem was complete, in spite of all the conspiracies, cowardly or criminal, official and unofficial, which had tried to prevent it’. In the ‘Tuba mirum’ it’s the chorus rather than the orchestra who provide a marvellous tingle factor. What impresses here and elsewhere - particularly at the start of the unaccompanied ‘Quaerens me’, and the tenors in the ‘Lacrymosa’ - is not only the balanced texture of the full chorus from top to bottom, but the complete confidence of the sopranos in some cruelly hard high and quiet starts, their intonation centrally focused on every note; only in the ‘Hostias’ do we get occasional flatness of pitch. The tenor Kenneth Riegel gives a fine account of the ‘Sanctus’, rising to the challenge of punishingly high phrases with equanimity. The brass is efficiently clean cut at its pivotal climactic moment, and it’s worth recalling Berlioz’s first night experience - he observed from behind the timpani as Johann Herbeck conducted - as described in his memoirs. ‘When the tempo broadens and the brass instruments launch their awesome fanfare, in the one bar where the role of the conductor is absolutely indispensable, Habeneck lowered his baton, quietly pulled out his snuff box and started to take a pinch of snuff. I was still looking in his direction. Immediately I pivoted on my heels, rushed in front of him, stretched out my arms and indicated the four main beats of the new tempo. The orchestras followed me, everything went off as planned, I continued to conduct to the end of the piece, and the effect I had dreamed of was achieved’.
Norrington, another seasoned Berlioz conductor, directs a fluent performance of comparative rarities accompanied by the harmonium, most impressive of which is
Le temple universel (the 1861 version, not the unaccompanied one of 1868) for male voice choruses, a typical French ode symphonique, taking a lead from the best known which was
Le Désert 1844, by Félicien David. More eloquent contributions come from Dutoit and his Montreal forces in another sombre, ceremonial work, the Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale (1840), scored for a massive military wind band, and written to mark the tenth anniversary of the 1830 Revolution. There are some thrilling moments in a well-paced interpretation, but it’s Colin Davis who takes top honours with a brilliant account of
Harold in Italy, probably Berlioz at his most eccentric in those sudden outbursts - something he started back in 1830 with the
Symphonie fantastique, and there are many points in the first movement when one could seamlessly pass into that work. The fine violist Nobuko Imai is a wistful Harold. With the magnificent strings of the LSO in full cry at every twist and turn and providing a splendid cushion of support to Imai in the second movement March of the Pilgrims, this is the best performance of the set. Davis also conducts
Tristia, once again sombre choral works, this time a trio of Hamlet-related pieces dating from 1852, beautifully sung by the John Alldis Choir: the ladies in the Death of Ophelia, and by the full group in the wordless March.
I would not describe this collection as ultimate, but there is more than enough to get a flavour of this extraordinary composer. The fact that not one French musician - the Swiss Dutoit and his Montreal band are
ersatz French - makes a contribution to this boxed set is a sad reflection on Berlioz’s own highly equivocal relationship with his homeland and its capital. They treated him badly. In 2003 it was mooted to move his body to the Panthéon, but nothing happened, and only one concert in June marked that bicentenary year. Plus ça change.
-- Christopher Fifield, MusicWeb International