Gielen Conducts “Lélio”

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BERLIOZ: Lélio, ou la Retour à la Vie / Joachim Bissmeier, narr; Herbert Lippert, ten; Geert Smits, bar; Wiener Singakademie; ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orch.; Michael Gielen, cond / Orfeo C210071 (live: December 7, 2000, Vienna)

Somehow I missed this recording when it was released in April, so I’m reviewing it now. Perhaps, at the time, I wasn’t sure that Gielen would make that much of a difference in Lélio, but if so, I was definitely wrong.

To begin with: Lélio is not a weak or inferior work, as is the accepted critical and musicological opinion. True, the dramatic-narrator-with-music form went out of style shortly after the composer’s death, but that’s not the point. Lélio is not so much an inferior work as his most personal work. Written shortly after he went berserk in Italy when he learned that the love of his life at the time, Camille Moke, was about to marry another—surely the most outré episode in Berlioz’ almost continually outré life (he even disguised himself as a woman, bought a gun, and started riding stagecoaches back to France with the determination to kill her)—and then calmed down and came to his senses, this “return to life” was an intensely personal experience for him.

Most of the songs, which are quit excellent, are piano-accompanied in this melodrama, which is the primary reason I didn’t think that Gielen would make a difference, even though tenor Herbert Lippert, the former Vienna Boys’ Choir alto who became one of Austria’s finest lyric tenors, is absolutely outstanding here. But where Gielen’s extraordinary skill as a conductor comes in is heard in his conducting of the orchestral and choral sections. Here, he gives us white-hot Berlioz, which in my view is the only way to conduct his music, and although the Wiener Singverein was, at that time, almost always an outstanding chorus, Gielen seems to draw them out even more, involving them emotionally in Berlioz’ inner drama. They practically explode with emotion in this performance, making them even a shade better than the London Symphony Chorus in the superb Pierre Boulez recording.

As for the narration, it’s in German, and I have to say right here and now that it REALLY pisses me off that we don’t even have ONE recording of this work with the narration in English. My readers know that I generally disdain opera and cantata performances in a language other than that the composer wrote in, but it’s not because I don’t want people to understand the words. It’s because composers generally write their music to match the speech-rhythms of their native tongue, thus the very sound of the words become part of the music, whether you like it or not. I have run across a few surprising exceptions that work very well, i.e. the Italian performances of Carmen and Werther that I recommend in my Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide, where somehow or other the translator did a fabulous job of matching the rhythms of the Italian translations to this very French music, but by and large I shy away from them. But this does not apply to spoken narration for foreign musical works. We almost always hear Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, particularly in Metropolitan Opera performances, with the narration in English while the music is sung, at the composer’s insistence, in Latin, so there is precedent for this. Yet when it comes to Lélio, we almost ALWAYS get the narration in French, often with the recording companies bragging about getting a famous actor like Gérard Depardieu to speak the narration…unless a conductor, in this case Gielen, insists on narration in the vernacular, which in this case was German. The only performance of Lélio I’ve ever heard with the narration in English was a Boston Symphony broadcast from the early 1980s conducted by Seiji Ozawa, and it worked superbly well; but as for other live performances and all studio recordings, all we get is French, French, French. This is utterly ridiculous and, in my view, acts as an impediment to Anglo-Saxon audiences’ full appreciation of this work. Reading the text from a CD booklet while the narrator babbles on in a foreign language you don’t speak is no substitute for hearing it in your language. Thus I’m begging some intrepid record company out there to give us a first-class Lélio with English narration.

OK, editorial over. Now back to our regularly scheduled review.

The thing I like about Lélio is that it captures, in its full glory, the wide mood swings of the composer in music, ranging from lyrical heartache (“L’onde frémit”) to the wild and woolly (the brigand’s song “J’aurais cent ans”) with other mood swings tossed in for flavor. Dutch baritone Geert Smits has a very bright, almost edgy voice, but it’s very well-focused, he has great diction, and he sounds like a brigand, which is the whole point of the song. (Berlioz ran into a few such folks during his wild carriage-rides through the wilds of Italy on his way to the French border, which as I said, he aborted when he came to his senses.) And surely one of the most imaginative pieces in this work is one often marginalized by most critics, the simulation of an Aeolian harp. For those who don’t know—and I’m sure there may be a few dozen or so reading this who don’t—the Aeolian harp was a real invention by the Greeks, a larger-than-life instrument with a dozen or so strings roughly five feet long that were played by the winds. As the wind blew over the strings, different overtones were excited on each one. You heard the third, the twelfth, the upper octave…a strange mélange of sound floating above that fundamental unison drone. (It was named after Aeolus, the Greek god of the wind.) By adding flutes to the harp in his score, Berlioz tried to simulate this sound. You, as a listener, are expected to use your imagination to “hear” an Aeolian harp instead. (It does kind of work if you meet the idea halfway.)

Yes, there’s a lot of narration, and as I say, not having it in English is always an impediment to fully appreciating Lélio; but just listen to the absolutely magical way that Gielen conducts the light and airy Fantasy on Shakespeare’s “Tempest” (track 12), and you’ll know why I value this performance. Not even Boulez achieved such a splendidly ethereal mood in this piece, and the way Gielen slowly builds up the tension as we reach the “tempest” is equally extraordinary.

Thus I recommend it despite the German narration. It’s quite a performance!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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