Historic Berlioz Broadcasts…But Are They Necessary?

CC9110 - cover

BERLIOZ: Lélio, ou Le retour à la vie* / Raymond Nemorin, speaker; Michel Sénéchal, ten; Bernard Lefort, bar; BBC Chorus; London Symphony Orch.; Jean Fournet, cond / Roméo et Juliette# / Nancy Evans, mezzo; René Soames, ten; David Ward, bs; BBC Symphony Orch. & Chorus; Alfred Wallenstein, cond / Cameo Classics CC9110 (live: London, *March 7, 1957; #January 6, 1956)

On the face of it, this would seem a rather superfluous release—two mono radio broadcasts from England in the 1950s of Berlioz performers by two good but not stellar conductors—but upon closer inspection, i.e. listening, one realizes that at least half of this two-record set is well worth having.

I speak of the Fournet performance of Lélio, Berlioz’ companion piece to the Symphonie Fantastique, which so many educated critics and musical academics have been slamming for years as an inferior and flawed work. I must say immediately that I disagree with that assessment. The whole point of Lélio is that it is a stream-of-consciousness piece in which memories and emotions flood the mind, producing a narrative-with-music in which the latter comes and goes as if conjured up in a dream state. My only complaint is that, when it is performed in English-speaking countries, the narration should be in English.

But this performance has more than a little bit going for it. First, there is the narration, given with a tremendous amount of emotion and inflection as it usually is not by the little-known Raymond Nemorin. Too often, the narration of Lélio is given in a whisper, which I always feel is the complete antithesis of what the madly passionate Berlioz wanted or was all about. As for the singers, although neither have what you could call glamorous voices they sing with greater feeling and understanding of the lyrics than any other version I’ve heard. Michel Sénéchal, a top-drawer comprimario tenor who was the French equivalent of Andrea Velis or Heinz Zednik, imbues the music with just the right feeling and interpretation of the text, and both his vocal placement and diction are superb. The way Nemorin comes in during Sénéchal’s opening song, you can almost picture Berlioz himself exploding in passion over the loss of his beloved, Camille Moke, which actually happened while he wrote this piece in Italy. Whoever coached Nemorin or suggested this style of delivery to him, hats off! He’s got it right!

In addition, Fournet conducts the whole work with a sense of structure rarely heard, and also adds a great deal of atmosphere to the proceedings: note, particularly, the sound he conjures up in “Froid de la mort.” The slightly subdued sound of the chorus is perfect. They don’t come blasting out at you as if singing “All’arme!” in Trovatore, but almost as if out of a dream. Our baritone, Bernard Lefort, also sounds like a comprimario. His voice is not as pleasant or as solidly grounded as Sénéchal’s, but he certainly sounds like a brigand on the loose, and here, appropriately, the chorus sings with great brio. It’s just all so French that it makes you smile. But of course, Fournet was already an old hand at Berlioz, having made the first commercial recordings of Roméo et Juliette (1942) and the Requiem (1943) for Columbia, both with tenor Georges Jouatte. Despite the mono radio sound, Fournet conjures up a splendid Berliozian sound, which of course means exceptionally clear, almost biting winds and emotional strings. Indeed, the subdued but passionate string tremolos that introduce the Aeolian Harp episode are particularly well played, and somehow or other Fournet brings out the feeling of nostalgia very well. It almost boggles the mind that he accomplished this with a British orchestra and chorus. Sonics aside, this is now my favorite recording of Lélio. It’s almost a shame that I couldn’t find any copy of his Roméo to hear.

The problem with this release is the performance of Roméo et Juliette—or, rather, the sound quality, which is exceptionally muffled, the orchestra also sounding rather distant. In my review of Warner Classics’ massive new Berlioz set, I complained about the dull top end in Riccardo Muti’s recording of this piece, which ruined the effects he was trying to make, but this is far worse. Wallenstein was a fine conductor who always seemed just on the edge of stardom but never quite made it there, so I suppose his fans will want this just because it exists, but when compared to the recordings of Toscanini, Colin Davis and Carlos Paita, this is rather a limp fish. None of the music has bite, particularly not the opening “Combats – Tumulte” which needs an edgy sound, and on top of this mezzo Nancy Evans sounds wobbly and dull in her aria. Tenor René Soames is in better voice than Evans, but his singing is too soft and lacking in energy. Only bass David Ward, of the three soloists, sings well, and he too sounds bored. Wallenstein does a fine job with the music, no question about it, but it’s like listening to the performance from outside the hall with the doors almost completely closed. The famed Queen Mab Scherzo lacks clarity, though the distant sound does give it a bit of a fairy-like feeling. Why they didn’t reissue Fournet’s 1942 recording of the piece as a companion to Lélio puzzles me; it would have been interesting to hear the same conductor in both works.

So there you have it. A great Lélio paired with a terrible recording of Roméo. If you can buy this as a download, just download the Lélio and save yourself some money.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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