The Complete Berlioz Set: Grandly Uneven

Berlioz

BERLIOZ: THE COMPLETE WORKS / Warner Classics 190295519414 (27 CDs)

  1. OVERTURES: Les francs-juges / London Classical Players; Roger Norrington, cond / Waverly. Le roi Lear. Intrata di Rob-Roy Macgregor / London Philharmonic Orch.; Sir Adrian Boult, cond / Le Carnival Romain / Royal Concertgebouw Orch.; Mariss Jansons, cond / Le Corsaire / London Symphony Orch.; André Previn, cond
  2. SYMPHONIES: Symphonie Fantastique (2 vers) / l’ORTF Philharmonic Orch.; Jean Martinon, cond; Pasdeloup Association Concert Orch.; Rhené-Baton, cond / Symphonie funèbre et Triomphale / Le Musique des Gardiens le a Paix; Désire Dondeyne, cond / Harold en Italie / Donald McInnes, vla; Orchestre National de France; Leonard Bernstein, cond / Roméo et Juliette / Jessye Norman, sop; John Aler, ten; Simon Estes, bs-bar; Westminster Choir; Philadelphia Orch.; Riccardo Muti, cond
  3. ORCHESTRAL-VOCAL-CHORAL WORKS: Rêverie et Caprice / Renaud Capuçon, vln; Bremen German Chamber Philharmonic; Daniel Harding, cond / Lelio, ou le Retour à la vie / Charles Burles, Nicolai Gedda, ten; Jean van Gorp, bar; Michel Sendrez, pno; Marie-Claire Jamet, harp; Jean Topart, narr; l’ORTF Lyric Chorus & Philharmonic Orch.; Jean Martinon, cond / Le revolution Grecque, Scène Héroique.* % La mort d’Orphée.+ Tristia, Op. 18: Meditation religieuse.+ Sara la baigneuse, Op. 11. Le cinq Mai, Op. 6.% 9 Mélodies, Op. 2, “Irlande:” No. 5, Chanson a boire: Amis, la coupe ecume; No. 6, Chant sacre: Dieu tout-puissant! Dieu de l’aurore + / *Nicolas Revenq, bar; %Laurent Naori, bs; +Rolando Villazón, ten; Les Elements Chamber Choir; Toulouse Capitol Orch.; Michel Plasson, cond / Herminie / Janet Baker, mezzo; London Symphony Orch.; Sir Colin Davis, cond / La mort de Cléopatra. La captive, Orientale, Op. 12 (vers. for mezzo & orch.). Feuillets d’album, Op. 19: No. 1. Zaïde; No. 3, Chant des chemins de fer / Véronique Gens, mezzo; Rolando Villazón, ten; Lyon Nat’l Opera Orch.; Louis Langrée, cond / 8 Scènes de Faust, Op. 1 / Angelika Kirschlager, mezzo; Jean-Paul Fouchecourt, ten; Frédéric Caton, bs; Claude Zibi, gtr; Radio France Choir & New Philharmonic Orch.; Yutaka Sado, cond / La mort de Sardanapale / Daniel Galves Valejo, ten; Pas-de-Calais N. Regional Choir; Lille National Orch.; Jean-Claude Casadesus, cond / Le jeune patre Bréton. Aubade. Les nuits d’été.# Le chasseur danois# / Howard Crook, ten; #Diana Montegue, Catherine Robbin, mezzo; #Gilles Cachemille, bar; Lyon Nat’l Opera Orch.; John Eliot Gardiner, cond / Les nuits d’été (solo version) / Janet Baker, mezzo; New Philharmonia Orch.; Sir John Barbirolli, cond / Le temple universel (orch. Y. Chauris)# / #Spirito; #Lyon Oratorio Choir / La belle Isabeau, conte pendant l’orange / Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo; Cord Garben, pno; Stockholm Royal Opera Chorus / Tristia, Op. 18: No. 3, Marche funèbre pour la dernière scène d’Hamlet. Requiem (complete);* Requiem (exc) / *Robert Tear, ten; City of Birmingham Chorus & Symph. Orch.; Louis Frémaux, cond / Prière de Matin. Hymne à la France. La menace des Francs. Le temple universel* / *Ryland Davies, ten; Heinrich Schütz Choir; Peter Smith, pno; Roger Norrington, cond / L’imperiale, Op. 26 / Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal Chorus; Charles Dutoit, cond / Messe solennelle (arr. H. Macdonald) / Donna Brown, sop; Jean-Luc Viala, ten; Gilles Cachemille, bs-bar; Monteverdi Choir; Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique; John Eliot Gardiner, cond / Quartetto e coro dei magi / Montreal Symphony Chamber Choir & Orch.; Charles Dutoit, cond / Te Deum / Roberto Alagna, ten; Marie-Claire Alain, org; Paris Maitrise Children’s Choir; European Union Opera Chorus; Chorus et Orchestre de Paris; John Nelson, cond / L’enfance du Christ, Op. 25 / Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo; Gilles Cachemaille, José van Dam, Rene Schirrer, bar; Michael Fockenoy, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, ten; Jules Bastin, bass; Monteverdi Choir; Lyon National Opera Orch.; John Eliot Gardiner, cond / Hymne pour la consécration du nouveau tabernacle.* Tantum ergo@ / Les Elements Chamber Choir; *David Bismuth, org; @Frank Villars, harmonium
  4. ORGAN & PIANO WORKS / Fugue, H. 22. Fugue à 3 sujets, H. 35 / Matthieu Baboulène-Fossey, org / 3 Morceau / Neil Wright, org / Le ballet des ombres / Les Elements; David Bismuth, pno
  5. SONGS / Je vais donc quitter pour jamais / Christopher Crapez, ten / La Dépit de la bergère / Elsa Dreisig, sop; Jeff Cohen, pno / Nocturne à 2 voix / Françoise Pollet, sop; Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo; Góran Söllischer, gtr / Le maure jaloux. Feuillets d’album. Le chant de Bretons. Chansonette / John Aler, ten; Cord Garben, pno / Amitié, reprends ton empire.+ Canon libre a la quinte. 9 Melodies, Op. 2, “Irlande”: No. 2. Helene; No. 3, Chant guerrier / Pollet, sop; von Otter, mezzo; +Thomas Allen, bar; Cord Garben, pno / Le montagnard exile / Pollet, sop; von Otter, mezzo; Christine Muhlbach, harp / Pleure, pauvre Colette / Felicity Lott, sop; Ann Murray, mezzo; Graham Johnson, pno / 9 Melodies, “Irlande”: No. 1, 4, 7-9 / Thomas Hampson, bar; Geoffrey Parsons, pno / Je crois en vous, romance / Thomas Allen, bar; Garben, pno / Fleurs des Landes: No. 3, Le Trébuchet / Victoria de los Angeles, sop; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, bar; Gerald Moore, pno / Tristia, Op. 18: No. 2, La mort d’Ophelie / Sabine Devielhe, sop; Alexandre Tharaud, pno
  6. OPERAS / Benvenuto Cellini / Patrizia Ciofi, sop (Teresa) Joyce DiDonato, mezzo (Ascanio); Gregory Kunde (Cellini), Eric Salha (Francesco), Eric Huchet (Le cabaretier), ten; Jean-François Lapointe (Fieramosca), Laurent Naouri (Balducci), Marc Mauillon (Bernardino), bar; Renaud Delaigue (Pope Clement VII), Ronan Nedelec (Pompeo), bass; Radio France Choir; French National Orchestra; John Nelson, cond / La nonne Sanglante (excerpts) / Véronique Gens, sop (Agnès); Mark van Arsdale, ten (Rodolphe); Vincent de Texier, bar (Hubert); Orchestre Symphonique Ose; Daniel Kawka, cond / La damnation de Faust (complete) / Susan Graham, mezzo(Marguerite); Thomas Moser, ten (Faust); José van Dam (Méphistopheles), Frédéric Caton (Brander), bar; Lyon National Opera Chorus & Orch.; Kent Nagano, cond / Les Troyens / Agnieszka Sławińska, sop (Hécube); Marie-Nicole Lemieux, alto (Cassandra); Marianne Crebassa (Ascagne), Joyce Di Donato (Didon), Hanna Hipp (Anna), mezzo; Michael Spyres (Énée), Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Hylas/Hélénus), Cyrille Dubois (Iopas), ten; Stéphane Degout, bar (Chorèbe); Philippe Sly, bs-bar (Panthée); Nicolas Courjal (Narbal), Bertrand Grunenwald (Priam), Richard Rittlemann (Soldier/Chief Greek), Jean Teitgen (Ghost of Hector), Jerome Varnier (Sentinel 1), Frédéric Caton (Sentinel 2), bs; Badischer Staatsopernchor; Choeurs de l’Opera National du Rhin; Strasbourg Philharmonic Chorus & Orch.; John Nelson, cond / Béatrice et Bénédict / Sylvia McNair, sop (Héro); Susan Graham (Béatrice), Catherine Robbin (Ursule), mezzo; Jean-Luc Viala, ten (Bénédict); Gilles Cachemille (Claudio), Gabriel Bacquier (Somarone), bar; Vincent Le Texier, bass (Don Pedro); Philippe Magnant, speaker; Lyon National Opera Chorus & Orch.; John Nelson, cond / La damnation de Faust: Voici des roses; Devant la maison / Maurice Renaud, bar; unidentified pno / Les Troyens: Chers, Tyriens;* Adieu, fière cite;+ Trojan March# / *Maria Delna, mezzo; +Félia Litvinne, sop; unidentified pno. #City of Birmingham Symph. Orch.; Louis de Frémaux, cond
  7. ORCHESTRAL ARRANGEMENTS / DeLISLE: Chant du Neuf Thermidor, H. 51bis. La marseillaise# / Tibere Raffalli, ten; #Françoise Pollet, Olivier Picard, sop; #François Le Roux, Marcel Vanaud, bar; Toulouse Capitole Chorus & Orch.; Michel Plasson, cond / WEBER: Invitation to the Dance / Orch. de la Societé des Concerts Symphonique de Paris; André Cluytens, cond / MARTINI: Plaisir d’amour / Le Roux, bar; Montreal Symphony Orch.; Charles Dutoit, cond / SCHUBERT: Erlkönig / Stanislas de Barbeyrac, ten; Insula Orch.; Laurence Equilbey, cond

Well, here it is, ladies and germs: every note of music that Hector Berlioz wrote that is known to exist, all recorded (some of it in more than one version) and packaged on no less than 27 CDs. The good news, of course, is that all the performances are complete and the liner notes were written by David Cairns, whose two-volume biography of Berlioz is both superb and definitive. The bad news is that not all the performances are great, and some are just barely passable.

In order to conduct Berlioz, you need four things. If any of these four things are missing, you end up with a table that’s missing a leg. They are:

  1. Brisk tempi.
  2. Subtle modifications to the basic tempi, including rubato, rallentando and other effects. Without these, the music is mechanical and soulless, and to my mind Berlioz was anything but a soulless composer.
  3. Really, really great singing voices that are not only steady and attractive to the ear but which also inhabit the characters. This is a particularly difficult order to fill in today’s opera world.
  4. An orchestra and chorus that plays as if their freaking lives depended on it. Cold, glassy-sounding orchestras simply don’t cut it.

Got that? OK. This will help me shorten my review by a few hundred words as we go through this massive collection. Unlike Mozart or many early 18th-century composers, Berlioz does not respond well to cold, clipped playing or singing. He may have been French, but he was Mahler’s predecessor. Take the grit and energy out of his music and you have nothing but notes. You may as well just read the music; you’ll probably get more out of it than listening to a cold, uninflected and/or poorly-sung recording.

guitar

Berlioz’ guitar

In addition, Warner Classics has mixed in several HIP performances using straight tone, which in addition to NOT being uniformly used in the 18th century was even less widely used in the 19th, and this, too, colors the music with an icy patina that is entirely wrong for our intrepid, hot-headed composer, so imbued with the music of Gluck and Beethoven, even if he did compose all of his music (in case you didn’t know) on a six-string guitar, not a piano.

As a means of saving some space in what will obviously be a very long review, I have decided to try something new that I’ve never done before, which is to color-code the titles in order to let you know which ones I found poor, OK, good and great:

Blue print will indicate a cold performance in addition to straight tone.

Green print indicates a somewhat cool or distorted performance. Straight tone will be noted if it exists.

Orange print indicates a fairly warm performance. This is not bad.

Red print indicates an exciting performance, one that fully captures the Berlioz aesthetic.

Before getting started, however, I’d like to point out the surprisingly large number of works in this set that even I had never heard before. As we’ll see, not all are of the highest quality but most are extremely interesting. Berlioz almost never allowed any of his inferior works to survive in manuscript form. These are:

Intrata di Rob-Roy Macgregor Overture
Le revolution Grecque, Scène Héroique
Herminie
La mort d’Orphée
8 Scènes de Faust, Op. 1
Tristia: Meditation religieuse
La captive, orientale, Op. 12 (vers for mezzo & orch.)
Le jeune patre Bréton
Aubade
Les nuits d’été
(multi-singer version)
Le cinq Mai
Tristia: La mort d’Ophelie
La belle Isabeau, conte pendant l’orange
Le chasseur danois
Feuillets d’album, Op. 19: Nos. 2 & 3
Prière de Matin
Hymne à la France
La menace des Francs, H. 117
L’imperiale
Le temple universel (2 vers.)
Messe solennelle
Quartetto e coro dei magi
Hymne pour la consécration du nouveau tabernacle
most of the 9 Mélodies Op. 2, “Irlande”
Fugue
Fugue à 3 sujets
3 Morceaux
Je vais donc quitter pour jamais
La Dépit de la bergère
Nocturne à 2 voix
Le maure jaloux
Amitié, reprends ton empire
Canon libre a la quinte
Le montagnard exile
Pleure, pauvre Colette
Feuillets d’album
Je crois en vous, romance
Le chant de Bretons
Chansonette
Fleurs des Landes: No. 3, Le Trébuchet
La nonne Sanglante (excerpts)
DeLISLE: Chant du Neuf Thermidor, H. 51bis
DeLISLE: La marsaillaise (multi-singer version

With all these parameters set, let’s dig into the music, shall we?

Les francs-juges: Overture.  A straight-tone performance with some guts, conducted surprisingly well by Roger Norrington, but for me a bit glib and lacking the real Berliozian intensity I find in Arturo Toscanini, Paul Kletzki and Sir Colin Davis.

Overtures: Waverly. Le roi Lear. Intrata di Rob-Roy Macgregor. Le corsaire. Sir Adrian Boult was, in his very long career, two different conductors. When inspired, particularly in the years before 1964, he could be quite exciting and invigorating in his approach to music, but even during this period his inspiration was not always consistent. Post-1964, he became almost consistently stodgy. The liner notes don’t indicate when these recordings were made, but they’re a bit too “Romantic” in the Brahmsian sense for my taste, particularly the slow passages (the fast ones are quite good). Still, the third overture is a real rarity, and Boult at least has a firm grasp on the music’s structure and gives us some enlivened playing (I particularly liked the pizzicato violin passage, and much of the music was later used in the first movement of Harold en Italie). I prefer Michel Plasson in Waverly and Le corsaire, Colin Davis in Le roi Lear.

Le Carnival Romain. A major disappointment. Jansons is too stiff and uninflected, despite some moments of excitement. I prefer Charles Munch and Toscanini.

Le corsaire. Much like the above, but this was typical of André Previn.

Les Troyens: Trojan March. I have no idea why this was included as a separate piece. It’s an OK performance but clearly not among the best.

Symphonie Fantastique (stereo version). Lélio. These are famous recordings issued c. 1970. I owned both in the LP days and liked them until I discovered Munch, Weingartner, Seiji Ozawa (his 1973 recording with the Boston Symphony) and, recently, Gianandrea Noseda in the first. I prefer Pierre Boulez’ version of Lélio.

Harold en Italie. Leonard Bernstein was not a conductor who gave any but hyper-intense readings of anything. His problem, much of the time, was over-italicizing the music to the point where certain phrases became distorted. I remember disliking this recording when it came out on LP because of this, particularly in the second movement which is ridiculously slow and the third movement where his tempo relationships are skewed. On balance, then, a hard performance to classify, but for me Michel Plasson, with Gérard Caussé on viola, and Toscanini (with either William Primrose or Carlton Cooley) are still the best in this wonderful score. Since the Plasson recording is digital (from 2006) and clearly the best version since Toscanini, I have no idea why they chose Bernstein.

Roméo et Juliette. Riccardo Muti gave some great concerts with the Philadelphia Orchestra, including a stupendous Symphonie Fantastique in the late 1970s which I saw on television, but these did not always transfer to the recording studio (his EMI studio version of the Symphonie was a major disappointment for me). Part of it was due to EMI’s then-very cold digital sound, which has since improved tremendously. The sonics here are not only a bit cold and glassy but covered in the upper range, which softens the edge of the music a bit too much despite otherwise superb tempi, phrasing and dynamics—certainly not Muti’s fault, but a problem nonetheless, which is why I only gave it a green rating. He does an OK job on the love scene but it sounds far less passionate than even Toscanini’s studio recording of this scene which is too rushed. Some of Muti’s tempi are also a bit slow, i.e. the mezzo (soprano) solo in Part 1, and the “Queen Mab scherzo” is surprisingly metronomic. Jessye Norman is excellent, John Aler pretty good, but the final scene with Simon Estes as Friar Lawrence is by far the most stupendous part of this performance. Best overall performances are the ones by Carlos Païta, Toscanini and Davis, in that order.

Symphonie funèbre et Triomphale. This justly-famous recording originally came out on Nonesuch in the mid-1970s. I thought it was the best one could ever hope to hear of this work until I heard Davis’, which is even more exciting and includes the optional chorus not heard here.

Rêverie et Caprice. A very glassy performance; the solo violinist plays with vibrato but the orchestra uses straight tone and the conducting is metronomic, uninflected, and cold as ice.

Fugue. Fugue à 3 sujets. 3 Morceaux. These organ works are played with a nice style but somewhat uninvolved for my taste.

Je vais donc quitter pour jamais. A very strange a cappella song; the booklet gives no text or translation. It is, however, sung very well by tenor Christophe Crapez, so I mark it red.

La Dépit de la bergère. A very pretty early song about a shepherd, sung beautifully.

Nocturne à 2 voix. Another early song, this time written with guitar accompaniment. Pollet and von Otter are in ear-ravishing voice.

Le maure jaloux. The first time I ever heard John Aler, which was in person, I thought his voice tight and dry, but ever since then I’ve found him to be a fine interpretive artist with really not so bad of a voice. This, another early song, is sung with wonderful commitment and interpretation.

Amitié, reprends ton empire. Canon libre a la quinte. Le montagnard exile. More exquisite singing from Pollet and von Otter, with Thomas Allen joining them in the first song.

Pleure, pauvre Colette. Felicity Lott is one of my favorite British sopranos of all time. When Ann Murray really had her voice intact, as she does here, she was an extraordinarily charming singer. This duet is perfection.

Toi qui l’aimas, verse des pleurs, romance. Gilles Ragon’s voice is rather tight and dry, which knocks this down to a high green level, but it’s surely a rare song and he’s at least competent.

La revolution grecque, scène héroïque. Kind of a mixed performance, which brings it up from green to orange. The solo singing is for the most part excellent and fully engaged, but conductor Michel Plasson sounds asleep at the switch (as he often did, though for some God-forsaken reason the Brits absolutely loved him). The Toulouse orchestra sounds as if it’s playing straight tone, but probably not. The musicians were probably just coasting through it, thinking of a good paycheck and a jolly nice lunch afterwards. The Elements Chamber Choir, by contrast, sounds pretty excited about things. The music is also quite good, and I’ve never seen another recording of this anywhere.

Herminie. This is the second of four cantatas Berlioz submitted hoping to win the Prix de Rome, which he only won with the fourth and last of them, La mort de Sardanapale. The opening music was later re-used as the “idée fixe” of his Symphonie Fantastique, but it morphs quickly into entirely different music. With Janet Baker and Colin Davis in their respective primes (it was issued in 1980), you can’t do any better. It’s a gem, and one I’d somehow never heard before (apparently, one of only three recordings of it).

La mort de l’Orphée. Another failed Prix de Rome cantata, this one sung by a tenor. Once again, Plasson is the conductor, and he again vacillates between fairly good tempi and mushy-Romantic goop, and once again the vocal soloist—in this case Rolando Villazón, who sounds surprisingly like young Plácido Domingo here (except for much more “ping” in the top notes)—and Les Elements Chamber Choir save the performance. The music, surprisingly, is generally more lyrical, not as Gluck-like as Herminie, although in the third section Berlioz opens with an extraordinary brass passage playing a crushed chord that was easily 80 years ahead of its time.

La mort de Cléopâtre. This, the most famous of the failed Prix de Rome entries, has received three wonderful, blistering recordings over the years: two by Jennie Tourel with Leonard Bernstein (one mono, the other stereo—I obviously prefer the stereo version) and one by Janet Baker with Alexander Gibson. (I also own an off-the-air performance from the early 1980s with the little-known Dianne Iauco singing with Terry Murai and the CCM Philharmonia Orchestra which is an ass-kicker.) This recording is a poor representation of the music. Both the singing and the conducting are far too cautious, with no real excitement generated from within, and the orchestra uses straight tone, which robs the music of its expressive power. A real bomb.

8 Scènes de Faust. This is Berlioz’ Op. 1, so we must be a bit charitable. It gets off to a sluggish start but picks up with the second number, “Paysans sous les tilleuls, danse et chant,” sung very nicely by light-voiced tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt. The orchestra sounds like straight tone to me, but conductor Yutaka Sado does a credible job with it and the Radio France Choir is almost as lively as Les Elements. The use of a guitar and what sounds like either a celesta or a triangle is a nice touch. Berlioz introduces a theme for chorus in the “Concert de sylphs” that he later used in an orchestral manner in La damnation de Faust; Méphistopheles’ “La puce gentile” is given to the tenor, and Marguerite’s “Le roi de Thule” also makes an early appearance here. As for the performance, it borders on the icy but not too much, which is why I colored it green.

Le ballet des ombres. A really strange piece for piano and chorus, in a minor key but with several Berlioz-like harmonic changes. A real little gem, beautifully played and sung.

La Mort de Sardanapale. This was Berlioz’ Prix de Rome prize-winning cantata. It’s much shorter than the others and somewhat more conservative in style, but still a very fine piece. Tenor Daniel Galvez Vallejo has a wonderfully strong voice with a surprisingly dark lower range, a little like Jonas Kaufmann but with more “squillo,” and Jean-Claude Casedesus, a conductor from a famous family of French musicians, conducts it pretty well although Vallejo is really the star of the show here.

9 Mélodies Op. 2, “Irlande.” This work, Berlioz’ Op. 2, is much more lyrical, regular in its use of evenly-distributed meter and more conventional harmonies, but interesting nonetheless. Several of the songs are for voice and piano, some are for voice and chorus; No. 6 was also set with orchestra. Outstanding performances all round.

Tristia (3 songs). Mixed quality music in mixed quality performances. Dead-head Plasson is the conductor in the first piece, so green is about as good as you’re going to get, but in No. 2 soprano Sabine Devielhe and the pianist are excellent and Louis de Frémaux conducts the excellent third piece, a funeral march for Hamlet, with power and energy. The overall rating, then, is orange.

La captive, orientale. A strange piece, slow and moody, redolent of the Orient. Again we get the ice-cool voice of Véronique Gens and the straight-toned ice-cold playing of the Lyon National Orchestra, but since it suits the piece pretty well I’ve upgraded it from blue to green.

Feuillets d’album: Les Champs. Je crois en vous, romance. Le chant des Bretons. Chansonette. Four very nice songs, sung beautifully by Aler and, in the second, Thomas Allen.

Le jeune patre Breton. Sara la baigneuse, Op. 11. Aubade. Three unusual songs, the first and third for tenor and orchestra, the second for chorus and orchestra. John Eliot Gardiner, with his ridiculous straight tone and slick, uninflected style, impairs the former, but Plasson and the superb Les Elements chorus salvage the middle piece. Musically, however, the third is the most interesting of them, accompanying the tenor with a brass choir scored as only Berlioz could.

Les nuits d’été (multi-singer version). I had never heard a multi-singer performance of this song cycle in my life, and by and large I didn’t like it. Of course, part of this is due to the ice-cold conducting of Gardiner, particularly in “Le spectre de la rose” where the wind and string playing should create a beautiful cushion for the mezzo-soprano (sung here by the excellent Catherine Robbin) but, thanks to his straight tone, does not. I did, however, like Robbin’s singing as well as that of baritone Gilles Cachemille in “Sur les lagunes.” They saved, to a small degree, this otherwise pitiful performance which also features the correct but cold singing of tenor Howard Crook and mezzo Diana Montague, which is why I upgraded it from blue to green.

Les nuits d’été (solo version). This always was an odd performance. Although Janet Baker interpreted the songs superbly, she didn’t have a high enough tessitura for “Villanelle” and a few of the other songs, so the whole cycle was pitched down for her. John Barbirolli certainly provided a great deal more warmth than Gardiner, but his tempi were a bit too slow in places (i.e., he takes 7:53 to get through “Le spectre de la rose” whereas Gardiner conducts it at its written pace and takes only 6:51). What puzzled me here was that Warner Classics has a stupendous recording of this cycle in their catalog by Susan Graham with the omnipresent John Nelson, surely the benchmark modern recording. This is the one that should have been included.

Le cinq mai, Op. 6. Another Plasson recording saved by the solo singer (Laurent Naori, despite some wobbly low notes) and the Les Elements Chamber Choir, though for some reason Naori is very recessed in the sound space, making him appear to be singing in a very ambient locker room next door to the microphones. It’s a very interesting early song with two surprisingly dramatic middle sections, the second featuring the chorus.

La belle Isabeau, conte pendant l’orange. Superbly sung and played by von Otter and Gerd Corben with the Stockholm Opera Chorus.

Feuillets d’album No. 6: Le chasseur danois. Another Gardiner performance, but this one really cooks, thanks to the fact that it emphasizes the brass and not the straight-tone strings, and Gilles Cachecille is marvelous.

Feuillets d’album No. 1: Zaïde. A fairly lively performance by Véronique Gens, so it rates orange. The version I own of this is by Cecilia Bartoli, who is even better, but it’s the piano version.

Feuillets d’album No. 3: Chant des chemins de fer. A really butt-kicking performance by Villazon, chorus and orchestra.

Prière du matin. Hymne à la France. La menace des Francs. Three nice choral songs with piano; the performances are OK but nothing much to write home about except for the last one.

Fleurs des landes: No. 3. Le Trébuchet. This is a real oldie, featuring Victoria de los Angeles in surprisingly lively voice (she wasn’t always) and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. A real gem.

L’imperiale, Op. 26. Always good to hear Charles Dutoit, no matter how badly he treats his orchestra members. The guy could kick ass, and he does so in this very lively number.

Le tempel universel (2 versions). Very lively performances. The first features harmonium with choir while the second is chorus with orchestra.

Messe solennelle. This very strange work is one of Berlioz’ earliest compositions, a setting of the Catholic Solemn Mass from 1824. It was performed at the Church of Saint-Roch on July 10, 1825, and again at the Church of Saint-Eustache in 1827. According to Wikipedia, after this, Berlioz claimed to have destroyed the entire score except for the “Resurrexit”, but in 1991 Belgian schoolteacher Frans Moors came across a copy of it in an organ gallery in Antwerp. And what was it doing in Belgium, and not in France? As it turns out, Berlioz gave a copy to a Belgian friend. Needless to say, this is its first and, to date, only recording. The score is more derivative in places of French Romantic music of the era than most of his early works, yet there are moments where you say to yourself, “Yes, that’s Berlioz all right.” The women’s chorus sings a passage in the “Gloria” that was later used for the Benvenuto Cellini and Roman Carnival overtures, there are interesting chromatic passages in the “Crucifixus,” and his explosive brass choir in the “Resurrexit” prefigures the Requiem. As for the performance, it’s Gardiner with his glassy choral singing and gutless strings, but for me the real problem is the completely metronomic reading, straight as an arrow with no moments of rubato to enliven the phrasing. I’ve upgraded it from blue to orange, however, because in this live performance from October 1993 there are several moments of tremendous excitement. Well worth hearing as a full revival of a formerly lost work. The performance of the full Mass ends with the revised version of “Resurrexit.” Soprano Donna Brown has a lovely voice and bass-baritone Cachemille is excellent, but we’re stuck with the nasal, tight-sounding tenor Jean-Luc Viala.

Quartetto e coro dei magi. A fairly interesting piece, given a spectacular reading by the great Charles Dutoit.

Requiem (Grande Messe des morts). In September 1975, Leonard Bernstein performed the Requiem in the same cathedral where the premiere took place in 1837. He conducted it magnificently, the tenor soloist was the great Stuart Burrows, and the odd ambience of the cathedral captured the “bouncing” of the four brass choirs off the walls. Columbia issued it commercially on LP. No recording of the work captures the music as fully as his, but here is Louis Frémaux with the City of Birmingham Chorus and Orchestra and tenor Robert Tear. It’s a good, solid reading but cannot equal the versions by Charles Munch or Colin Davis, let alone Bernstein. Frémaux does capture Berlioz’ weird biting reeds and brass very well, but in the “Dies irae” his brass choir lacks the proper impact and, for whatever reason, Tear is miked too closely, which ruins the effect of a “voice from above.” I wasn’t sure whether to rate it green or orange, thus I chose purple instead. So sue me.

Te Deum. This is another famous recording, one of Nelson’s finest except for the overly-boomy sonics (no fault of his own). The performance is superb, featuring tenor Roberto Alagna still in his prime and the great, late organist Marie-Claire Alain.

L’enfance du Christ. For those who don’t like Berlioz’ louder, more bombastic scores, this relatively quiet piece is their favorite (Johannes Brahms absolutely loved it). Before hearing this recording I was prejudiced against it, having always preferred the versions by Charles Munch and Charles Dutoit, particularly the former which has the best male soloists ever assembled for a recording of this piece (Cesare Valletti, Gérard Souzay and Giorgio Tozzi). Yet in this very intimate piece Gardiner did some of his finest work, presenting the music as a drama and not as an act of sanctimonious religious piety, which I greatly appreciated, and the straight-tone strings are not nearly as annoying as I thought they’d be. In addition his soloists, though not quite on the starry level of the Munch, are very, very good, and the crystal clarity of the sonics bring out the score in almost 3-D sound. The more it went on, the more I liked it (he pulls the work’s structure together perfectly), and it certainly didn’t hurt that José van Dam is perfectly idiomatic in French. I still prefer the Munch (it’s much more dramatic) but liked this one very much.

Hymne pour la consécration du nouveau tabernacle. Tantum ergo. Two religious choral pieces with piano or harmonium, except that the piano part in the first is played here on the organ. Nice, rather repetitive and nothing to write home about.

Benvenuto Cellini. If you ever see me criticize a John Nelson recording, rest assured that it’s not because I don’t admire his talent. In fact, I have a soft spot in my heart for him because, although he rose to prominence as music director of the Indianapolis Symphony, he started out, as I did, in northern New Jersey in the 1970s, and I always thought the world of him. A fastidious musician who always tries to give his very best, Nelson has produced several recordings that I treasure very highly, but now that he’s in the Big Time he faces the same pressures that others in his class do: tight deadlines and operatic recording dates on which he doesn’t always have control of who he picks and, worse yet, no opportunity to replace singers he does select when he realizes that they’re in bad voice (or don’t give 100%). In this recording the one questionable singer is the Cellini, tenor Gregory Kunde, who is like the girl with the curl right in the middle of her forehead. When he is good, he is very, very, good, and when he’s not he scoops high notes and shows some strain. In this recording we get some of both, but for most of it he does a very fine job in what is one of Berlioz’ most difficult tenor roles (Énée is clearly the most difficult of all). But Kunde, who filled in for Roberto Alagna who was originally chosen but canceled, sounds like a Golden Age tenor compared to poor Nicolai Gedda, who strained and wobbled his way through the Colin Davis recording, so much so that Davis had to slow down the tempi for all those tricky coloratura runs that Cellini has to sing. Patrizia Ciofi, Joyce DiDonato (one of Nelson’s favorite singers and one of mine, too) and Laurent Naouri are all terrific. Occasionally this recording suffers from Studio-itis, meaning that although the singers interpret very well it sounds like “canned excitement,” if you know what I mean, which is why I prefer the live 2003 Met Opera performance with Isabel Bayrakdarian, Marcello Giordani, Kristine Jepson, John Del Carlo and Robert Lloyd, despite the fact that Lloyd has a wobble at times. You can order it HERE.

Yet this is the best studio recording of this opera in existence. Most of it is the original 1838 score, with a few additions (Ascanio’s aria, some orchestral passages and a few other bits) from the 1839 and 1852 revisions, with alternate arias for Teresa and Cellini included as appendices. In addition to Nelson’s wonderful conducting—in my view, even better here than in Béatrice—everyone gives juicy performances and try their best to liven things up, and the singing, except for two scoop-and-strain moments from Kunde (the opening scene and his aria “Sur les monts les plus sauvages”), is really outstanding (including all of the singers’ shakes and trills), so yes, Warner Classics chose very well here.

La nonne Sangante (excerpts). This 32-minute collection of scraps is all that exists of this opera, which both Berlioz and librettist Eugène Scribe apparently started with little enthusiasm and dragged out for about six years (1841-47), but the interesting thing is that Charles Gounod wrote a complete opera on this subject in 1854. Berlioz liked Gounod at first, but then began to notice that he duplicated subjects that he himself had already written music for, i.e. Roméo et Juliette and Faust, and became jealous that Gounod’s versions were far more popular than his. But even in the Gounod version, it’s a pretty convoluted and fairly stupid opera based on a sort of Romeo and Juliet story, a couple in love from rival families. The kicker here is that Agnès, Rodolphe’s lover, disguises herself as a ghostly nun who apparently likes to haunt the town until the nun herself shows up. In the end, Berlioz got the last laugh when Gounod’s opera was a complete bomb. Without a libretto (Warner Classics provides none in the accompanying booklet) it’s hard to tell what’s going on these scenes, just a few recitatives, one aria each for Hubert (rather conventional and uninteresting) and Rodolphe (very good) and a long Agnès/Rodolphe duet (which is excellent). Considering the fact that only three singers are present, you’d think they could have signed a baritone who didn’t have a wobble, but Vincent Le Texier’s voice is pretty bad in this respect despite an attractive timbre. On the other hand, Véronique Gens sings with her customary beautiful tone and fastidious phrasing (but rather generic interpretation), and a real surprise is tenor Mark van Arsdale, who sounds like a young Peter Dvorský who in turn sounded like a young Pavarotti. Daniel Kawka’s conducting sounds crisp and bright enough for the score, but rating the music as well as the performance I have to mark it orange. But hey, they wanted this collection to be complete, so here it is.

La damnation de Faust. I listed this work as an opera not only because Berlioz called it a “concert opera” but because, in recent years, it has been staged several times despite a preponderance of orchestral music over vocal. This 1995 recording, which I hadn’t heard before, is surprisingly good but just misses greatness. Kent Nagano brings the right amount of energy to most of the score and his orchestra has the right “Berlioz bite,” meaning stinging winds and strings (this is what the historically-informed crowd always misses), only disappointing in the final scene (the ride to Hell) where he does not pull out all the stops. The chorus is exceptional from start to finish. As for the soloists: Thomas Moser manages to sing well and without a wobble but his voice is rather tight and not very attractive (another reason I marked it orange), José van Dam is a suave Méphistopheles with dramatic bite, Frédéric Caton is a far-better-than-average Brander and Susan Graham sings splendidly though just misses the pathos of Marguerite. But if you look at it pragmatically, the only better recording out there is Seiji Ozawa’s 1974 version on Pentatone with the best Faust ever (Stuart Burrows), a surprisingly sensitive Marguerite in the vastly-underrated Edith Mathis, a truly scare-the-shit-out-of-you Méphistopheles in Donald McIntyre, and what has to be the most freaking unbelievable ride to Hell ever captured on tape. George Prêtre’s vintage EMI recording has its adherents, but truth to tell, it’s only good and not great despite Janet Baker’s superb Marguerite. This one lies somewhere between those two, which isn’t bad at all. The “Rakoczy March” in this performance rivals the best versions I’ve ever heard, including Toscanini’s.

Les Troyens. Surely one of the most difficult of all operas to pull off well (right up there with Götterdämmerung and Elektra), I’ve only heard two recordings in which everyone sings superbly, the unfortunately abridged 1969 live performance with Marilyn Horne, Nicolai Gedda and Shirley Verrett conducted by Prêtre and Colin Davis’ classic studio recording of the same year with Berit Lindholm, Jon Vickers and Josephine Veasey. Davis’ later live performance has the superb Ben Heppner as Énée but the rest of the cast has weaknesses and his conducting is glassy and too smooth for Berlioz. This one received critical raves, including a Gramophone best opera recording of the year for 2018. The conducting, orchestral playing and choral singing are absolutely stupendous, even a bit better than 1969 Colin Davis—but then, you must remember that in his time this music was completely foreign in style for most classical musicians (one small example among many, the backwards syncopation between trumpets and trombones in the opening section of the work). I attribute much of this to the fact that the recording was culled from two live performances and not taped in a studio (remember what I said earlier about Benvenuto Cellini). Marie-Nicole Lemieux, who has a powerful and expressive voice, also has a very strong vibrato that often borders on a flutter-wobble, and this is evident here. Yes, she is wonderfully dramatic as Cassandra, but the wobble intrudes too much, and frankly, it gives me a headache. Here, too, her tone has become coarse and unpleasant; she’s almost as bad as the God-awful Anna Caterina Antonacci on the Covent Garden DVD of this opera conducted by Antonio Pappano. Our Chorèbe, Stéphane Degout, also has an uneven flutter in the voice and a really ugly, nasal timbre. Michael Spyres, one of my favorite modern tenors, is somewhat lightweight for the role of Énée (as was Gedda), but he’s in excellent voice and, except for Gedda, he’s the only tenor I’ve heard in the part who makes those ungodly difficult high notes (especially in his entrance) sound easy. Surprisingly, some of the women in the chorus also have wobbles. Stanislas de Barbeyrac, as Hélénus, has a good, solid voice, but Jean Teitgen as the Ghost of Hector does not. Marianne Crebassa (Ascagne) also has a strong vibrato, albeit not an out-of-control one, and an unpleasant timbre. Joyce Di Donato, who generally has an absolutely exquisite voice, for some reason is also emphasizing a strong vibrato here, possibly to emulate the French-speaking singers who all have one. It does not become her voice at all, but rather turns her normally gorgeous tone nasal and shrill. Cyrille Dubois, as Iopas, has a small, nasal voice, and Courjal (Narbal) is another tremulous horror.

For me, the terrible singing of Lemieux, Degout and some of the other secondary singers makes this recording an inferior representation of the opera. I told you earlier that Berlioz demands, and needs, absolutely first-class singers to make his music work, and folks, this ain’t it. Berit Lindholm, a terribly underrated singer (she had the misfortune to be a Wagnerian soprano in the same era as Birgit Nilsson), is still my favorite Cassandra (on the old Davis set) and Jon Vickers should be almost anyone’s top choice as Énée. Yes, the conducting is absolutely stupendous—this is clearly Nelson at his considerable best—and the orchestra has more life and “bite” than any other I’ve ever heard, but if half your cast sucks, what’s the point? If you’re going to lambaste Toscanini for picking the very nasal mezzo Eva Gustafson as his Amneris in Aïda, you should be lambasting Nelson for some of his cast choices.

Béatrice et Bénédict. Almost everyone tries to give their all in this recording (only Sylvia McNair is pretty dull as Hero), yet in the end I kept coming away feeling that a sense of real theatricality was missing. In addition, I really don’t like tenor Jean-Luc Viala’s voice; it’s nasal and tight and wears on my nerves (perhaps he, too, was a last-minute replacement for another tenor). Yet, like Benvenuto Cellini, this is the best studio recording of the opera, although I prefer a mixture of Colin Davis’ and Jeremie Rhorer’s live performances that are uploaded on YouTube. See The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music for a full description.

Chant du Neuf Thermidor. This, the first of several orchestrations Berlioz made of others’ music, suffers from the pinched, nasal singing of one Tibere Raffali (it’s a tenor), but for once Plasson conducts with fire and the performances takes off, so I colored it orange. The music sounds like a first draft for Le marseillaise.

La marseillaise. The version I have of this features but one singer, Roberto Alagna, who is very good, with the somewhat soggy conducting of Bertrand de Billy. Here we’re stuck with the same tenor as the above, but also have Françoise Pollet, Olivier Picard, François Le Roux, Marcel Vanaud, and adult chorus and even a children’s chorus jumping in for their own licks, and they’re all excellent, especially Le Roux who sounds like Ernest Blanc on steroids. And boy oh boy, does Plasson conduct up a storm here! This one should get an ultra-red ranking!

Invitation to the Dance. As I’ve since learned over the years, the somewhat sedate André Cluytens that we all know from studio recordings was not the firebrand one heard in live performances. This version of Invitation to the Dance is typical: lyrical, well-phrased, but not terribly invigorating. I’ll give it orange, however, because once he’s past the opening he’s more lively, but Kurt Eichhorn and the Munich Radio Orchestra made a much better version.

Plaisir d’amour. A surprisingly outstanding, true bel canto performance by François Le Roux. Perfect voice placement, beautiful timbre, superb diction, and a trill. Study this one, vocal students!!

Erlkönig. The version I have is by a mezzo, Anne Sofie von Otter, and it is terrific. This one is conducted far too fast, the orchestra sounds wan because they use straight tone, and tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac has too light of a voice and is dramatically inadequate. Yukh.

Historical Recordings

La damnation de Faust: Voici des roses; Devant la maison. Excerpts from this opera, especially Méphistopheles’ arias, weren’t as uncommon in the acoustic era as Warner Classics wants to make out, and in fact Pol Plançon sang them better, but the Maurice Renaud recordings are very nice as well and are much rarer. Only green, however, because of the poor sound quality and the piano accompaniment.

Les Troyens: Cher, Tyriens; Adieu, fière cite. Rare it may be, but Marie Delna’s voice sounds pinched and nasal on this old recording of “Cher, Tyriens.” Félia Litvinne, who sings “Adieu, fière cite,” has a much prettier voice but is a very high soprano, not a mezzo. Due to these problems, plus the piano accompaniment and pinched sound, I don’t rate them at all. Incidentally, Delna made a far superior–and much longer–recording of “Cher, Tyriens,” with orchestra, in 1912 on an Edison cylinder. You can hear it HERE.

Symphonie Fantastique (acoustic version). I once had a friend—and I’m not joking—who wanted to hear a Mahler Symphony and the Symphonie Fantastique on acoustic records. Of course I knew, at that time, of Oskar Fried’s 1923 recording of Mahler’s Second Symphony, but had no idea there was an acoustic Symphonie Fantastique until this one popped up. I had also never heard of conductor Rhené-Baton before, and had to look him up on Wikipedia. For all I know, this may be his only commercial recording. It was made for Parlophone in 1924 and, of course, suffers from the usual cramped sound that all orchestral recording on acoustic records suffered from, most notably a truncated high and low range which makes the violins, flutes, cellos, basses etc. sound as if they were playing under a blanket in a sound-dead studio. It also sounds as if Rhené-Baton used a tuba to reinforce the bass line (not uncommon in those days). BUT you can judge his musical style and phrasing, which are excellent and not that far from either the 1930 Pierre Monteux recording or Charles Munch’s 1962 stereo recording, both of which are huge favorites of mine. I was especially happy to hear that he didn’t drag out the “Scène aux champs,” which too many conductors do.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the recording, however, is that Rhené-Baton couldn’t make much contrast in volume. His soft passages are no softer than mezzo-piano which skews the impact of the music somewhat (the timpani is far too loud near the end of the “Scène aux champs,” and the soft cymbals in the “Marche au supplice” are of course completely inaudible), and there are moments (but only a few) of string portamento. It also sounds as if he was forced to use a reduced string section and a few of the musicians therein were not 100% on pitch. Yet considering all these inhibiting factors, by the standards of its day it’s not really a bad recording at all and not lacking in excitement, which is why I gave it an orange rating. Would that Martinon had conducted it this well! Considering all of the factors noted above, I still rate it orange—the same as Martinon, but for musical and performance value over sonics.

Berlioz set

Some readers may feel like I’m carping, but really, since Warner Classics apparently wanted this to be THE Berlioz set that most collectors would want (if not, why bother including the acoustic recordings or going out of your way to get some of those older EMI discs?), ten substitutions would have made it near-perfect instead of uneven. It’s selling on Arkivmusic for $77.49, which breaks down to $2.87 per CD, really an excellent price for such a big set from a major label. I think this may be because about 40-45% of classical lovers no longer collect CDs. Moreover, the families of collectors who pass away have discovered that they can’t even donate their loved ones’ collections to a local or university library. They don’t want them any more. I still recommend this set as is for all the good things in it, which are many, but strongly urge you to replace Symphonie Fantastique, Lélio, Harold en Italie, Roméo et Juliette, La mort de Cléopâtre, Les Troyens, Béatrice et Bénédict, Rêverie et caprice, the Requiem and Les nuits d’été with my recommended versions if you want the BEST complete Berlioz set.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter or Facebook @Artmusiclounge

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music

Advertisements
Standard

11 thoughts on “The Complete Berlioz Set: Grandly Uneven

  1. Rob Gallagher says:

    “The bad news is that all the performances are great, and some barely passable.” Did you mean “…NOT all the performances are great…”? Also, something seems to be missing here: “since Warner Classics seems to be more likely to be in the world than it would be. older EMI discs?)…”

    Like

  2. I drop a comment when I like a post on a blog or I have something
    to valuable to contribute to the discussion. Usually it is caused by the
    fire communicated in the article I read. And on this
    article The Complete Berlioz Set: Grandly Uneven | THE ART MUSIC LOUNGE.
    I was actually excited enough to post a comment 🙂 I actually do have some
    questions for you if it’s okay. Is it just me or does it look like
    a few of these comments appear as if they are coming from brain dead individuals?
    😛 And, if you are writing on other places, I would like to follow everything fresh you have to
    post. Would you make a list every one of all your shared sites like
    your linkedin profile, Facebook page or twitter feed?

    Like

    • Sorry, Luke, I don’t have reviews on any other sites except for the ones I wrote for Fanfare, which are in their archive and will cost you money to pull up online. But I do post teasers for every review or article I write on Facebook (where I am listed as Monique Musique) and Twitter.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s