INKPOT#74 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: BERLIOZ Complete Orchestral Works. London Symphony Orchestra, Davis (Philips)
Complete Orchestral Works
Symphonie Fantastique, Op.14
Llio ou Le retour la vie, Op.14a
Grande Symphonie funbre et triomphale, Op.15
Harold in Italie, Op.16
Romo et Juliette, Op.17
Rverie et Caprice (Romance for violin and orchestra)
Tristia, Op.18 (excerpt): Marche funbre
La Damnation de Faust, Op.24 (excerpts): Menuet de follets and Marche hongriose
Prlude to Act 3 from Les Troyens Carthage, Part II
Les Troyens (excerpts): Royal hunt and storm, Marche pour l’entre de la reine, ballet musicOvertures to Batrice et Bndict, Benvenuto Cellini, Le roi Lear, Op.4, Les Francs-juges, Op.3, Waverley, Op.1, Le Corsaire, Op.21 and Le Carnaval romain, Op.9
Thomas Allen baritone (Op.14b) Jos Carreras tenor (Op.14b) Patricia Kern mezzo (Op.17)
John Shirley-Quirk bass (Op.17) Robert Tear tenor (Op.17) John Constable piano (Op.14b)
Arthur Grumiaux violin (Op.8) Nobuko Imai viola (Op.16) Roy Jowitt clarinet (Op.14b)
Renata Scheffel-Stein harp (Op.14b) Dennis Wick trombone (Op.15)
John Alldis Choir (Op.14b,15,17,18) London Symphony Chorus (Op.17)
Orchestras of the BBC Symphony (Benvenuto Cellini) New Philharmonia (Op.8) Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (Les Troyens) Royal Concertgebouw (Op.14) London Symphony (all other works)
conducted by Sir Colin Davis and Edo de Waart (Op.8)
PHILIPS Classics 456 143-2
6 discs [6h34’01”] budget-price
by Benjamin Chee
Philips has put together a wonderful bargain-box package of the complete Berlioz orchestral music, economically totalling six discs. Sir Colin Davis conducts all but one of the pieces, working with no less than five different orchestras (including his beloved LSO and Royal Concertgebouw) over a twenty-five year period from 1965 to 1980. This isthe companion set to the Philips/Davis complete Berlioz operas (Philips 456 387-2, comprising Batrice et Bndict, Benvenuto Cellini and Les Troyens).
Davis, in this field, can rightly be described as the quintessential Berliozian interpreter with consistent, insightful readings into the quirky Romantic composer’s music. The recordings are also of the usual high Philips standard, having been excellently remastered to retain their ambient warmth and natural vividness. This extends even to the early analogue recordings – even if they lack the in-your-face realism of modern digital sound, they have obviously gained from the transfer onto the digital disc medium.
The collection opens, rightly, with Davis’ 1974 landmark recording of the Symphonie Fantastique, Op.14 with the Royal Concertgebouw. Historically, this was the first work he recorded with the Dutch ensemble, with a reading that approaches almost an orthodoxy of how the Fantastique should be played; the music-making is all at once evocative, atmospheric and exhilarating. Alongside, the marche funbre from Tristia, Op.18 (presented here with the first two movements strangely omitted) and two instrumental items from La Damnation de Faust, Op.24 (the Menuet de follets and Marche hongriose) make worthy fillers for the rest of the disc.
The lesser known and somewhat more eccentric successor to the Fantastique, Llio ou Le retour la vie, Op.14a and the Grande Symphonie funbre et triomphale, Op.15 occupy the second disc. Where the Fantastique was a drug-induced dream-music menagerie, Llio is a rather more staid monologue (as the Oxford Dictionary of Music describes it) for speaker, 2 tenors, baritone, choir and an orchestra that includes two pianos in its instrumentation. It is recommendably performed here, albeit with the spoken dialogue omitted, by the London Symphony with a youthful Jos Carreras (tenor) and Thomas Allen (baritone) backed by the John Alldis Choir. If only for its curiosity value, it affords us an introspection into the post-Fantastique artistic manifesto of Berlioz.
The Grande Symphonie funbre et triomphale here, perhaps, is the weakest link in the entire collection: the music seems to want in impact and emotion, with the weight of the final Apotheosis movement just falling short of its eponymous title.
Two instrumental soloists are featured on the third disc, Nobuko Imai performing the viola obbligato in Harold in Italie, Op.16 and Arthur Grumiaux (with de Waart and the New Philharmonia, the only non-Davis contribution in this collection) in the diminuitive Rverie et Caprice, a romance for violin and orchestra. Scenes from the bladder-busting opera Les Troyens and its truncated successor Les Troyens Carthage make up the rest of the disc.
Both instrumental works, arguably the closest Berlioz ever came to writing concertante pieces, are played with distinction, but the thunder (quite literally) is stolen by the choral contributions of the Royal hunt and storm scene from Davis’ recording of the opera. The effect when the eerie female chorus enters to the Covent Garden orchestra’s Sturm und Drang is chilling and evocative, and played at volume is just about the next best thing to being at the opera itself.
Discs four and five are given wholly over to the dramatic symphony, Romo et Juliette, Op.17. Here his earlier version with the LSO is presented rather than his newer version with the Vienna Philharmonic, but it still manages to hold its own. This work is indubitably associated with Ms Harriet Smithson (aka Mrs Berlioz), as well as a generous grant from Paganini (after hearing a performance of Harold) which enabled Berlioz to throw himself into his “sea of poetry” that produced this opus.
The resulting work – whether one terms it a drama, opera or whatever – is not an abstract symphony of vocal movements, but Berlioz’s take on the musical form in its purest form of expression. Here, he renders specific scenes from Shakespeare’s play in musical terms to their utmost, while leaving out many others. This produces an interesting, if somewhat uneven, pastiche of musical drama. Again, Davis proves himself to be an immaculate interpreter of Berlioz, evoking wonderful performances of the lovers and Friar Laurence from soloists Patricia Kern, John Shirley-Quirk and Robert Tear, with equally responsive playing from the LSC/LSO.
On the last disc of the set are the seven Berlioz overtures, both operatic and concert. These are the vintage recordings in the series (all but two date from 1965) but the quality of the digital transfer does not betray their age. The sound here is brilliant, as is the playing, which is delightful and infectious.
The accompanying notes by Professor Julian Rushton are excellent, economically tracing the chronological history and illustrating the significance of each featured work in the years of Berlioz’ creative output. The only caveat here is that, not unexpectedly, this level of scholarship is aimed not so much at newcomers to classical music, than for the intermediate collector who already has more than just a passing familarity to Berlioz, although this should be a small concern as programmatic dissections of the music for the novice are easily available elsewhere.
Indeed, most of the music in this collection would be new to most but the ardent fan, and does serve as a wonderful – and economical – springboard for anyone who wishes to explore the Berlioz corpus. At bargain price, this set is great value for money, with the added bonus that its exponent, Sir Colin Davis, is well nigh untouchable in this repertoire, and the ensembles and soloists are all first-class. Serious collectors need not hesitate, and the adventurous novice to Berlioz will deservingly find this a very rewarding musical experience.
For those unable or disinclined to afford the expense of the larger set, there is also a Philips Duo (442 290-2), aptly titled “Great Orchestral Works”, with key works performed by the same artistes: Harold, Fantastique, Grande Symphonie and two overtures (Le Carnaval romain and Le Corsaire). These can be enjoyed as a less strenuous introduction to Berlioz, and ideally allows those whose interests have been thus piqued to go on to further explore the composer’s other works.
446: 24.3.1999 Benjamin Chee
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