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Monday, February 25, 2019

A Box of Berlioz

ONE OF THE MOST SURPRISING DISCOVERIES lurking in a trip through the complete works of Hector Berlioz is the sense of intimacy that peeks through. Here’s a composer who demanded extra-large orchestral forces, and whose music surges with the grandest of gestures, yet in and among those roarings are moments of incredible delicacy, rendered all the more delicate by the context in which we find them.

Thus, as the “Sanctus” in Berlioz’s Requiem comes to us an hour into the piece (after the tumult of a terrifying “Rex tremendae” and a big-boned “Hostias”), a solo tenor soars above quiet strings – here it’s the welcome voice of Robert Tear – in a passage that seems worlds apart from what came before, but it’s precisely because of the moods and momentum that brought us here that we’re so moved by the moment (in this respect, it’s not unlike the “Sanctus” in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis).

We celebrate Berlioz in 2019 – March 8 being the 150th anniversary of his death – and Warner Classics has produced a 27-CD of the composer’s complete works to honor the occasion. The aforementioned Requiem is the formerly out-of-print version recorded in 1975 by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Louis Fremaux, a stirring performance that holds its own against the legendary alternatives helmed by Colin Davis and Charles Munch.

Complete works! It’s an overwhelming concept when looking at the big Bach and Mozart boxes, but, even if the total Berlioz output is comparatively fractional, it’s awash in far more emotional variety. The large-work intimacy occurs both instrumentally, as in the Symphonie Fantastique’s third movement’s beginning and end, in which the lovesick hero’s gentle anguish plays out in a haunting flute passage, and vocally, as in the tumultuous fifth and final act of Les Troyens, when Dido (a suitably anguished Joyce DiDonato) sings a tender goodbye (“Adieu, fière cité”) before all hell breaks loose.

The small-work intimacy is a fixture of the many songs, which are nice to have in one place. Best-known is the set of six titled Les nuits d'été. They’re settings of verse by a friend, Théophile Gautier, all dealing with love, of course, but the deceptively merry opening gives way to increasing melancholy and an ironic finish. Originally written for a soloist with piano accompaniment, Berlioz eventually orchestrated the set, and once you’ve heard the improvements he made, it’s tough to go back to the piano.

Which probably is why that version is not among the offerings on this set, but the two different orchestral versions certainly make up for it. Berlioz wanted a variety of voices (but no sopranos). Thus, we have John Eliot Gardiner leading l’Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon with Catherine Robbin and Diane Montague sharing the mezzo duties, tenor Howard Crook, and baritone Gilles Cachemaille in a terrific-sounding 1989 recording, but I have to confess a preference for hearing a single voice throughout the cycle, and Janet Baker is completely at one with the material in her 1967 recording with John Barbirolli and the New Philharmonia Orchestra.

Those are a small part of the seven discs given over to vocal and choral works. Although two of them are dominated by Kent Nagano’s sinewy recording of the Damnation of Faust, there’s plenty else to be discovered, including Irlande, nine settings of verse by Irish poet Thomas More, and the four cantatas written between 1827-30 for the Prix de Rome competition. Berlioz shared the first prize in that last year, with Sardanapale, which he apparently thereupon destroyed. A six-minute fragment remains, and a recording of it is in this set alongside La Mort d'Orphée, Cléopâtre, and Janet Baker’s take on Herminie, which also sports a theme that reappeared a couple of years later as the idée fixe in the Symphonie Fantastique.

The earliest appearance of that theme was in a song titled “Ja vais donc quitter pour jamais,” which also fell victim to the Berlioz incinerator, but which has been partially reconstructed because we know the theme and we know the lyric. Tenor Christopher Crapez sings it a cappella, and it’s a fine start to the vocal-works portion of this set.

Among Berlioz’s other self-borrowings was that flute passage in the Symphonie Fantastique noted above, which was taken from the composer’s Messe solennelle, an early work that Berlioz claimed to have destroyed two years after its premiere. However, an autograph score was discovered in an organ loft in Belgium in 1991, where it had lain virtually undisturbed for a century. John Eliot Gardiner conducted its re-premiere two years later, when it also was recorded – and that’s the splendid recording you’ll find in this set, giving us the work of a brilliant 20-year-old already with great maturity in place.

In spite of the grand scale at which he often worked, Berlioz was thrifty. With the Messe solennelle supposedly discarded, he also recycled sections of it into the Requiem, the Te Deum, the opera Benvenuto Cellini, and the Roman Carnival Overture. All of which are all in this set and may be studied at length should you doubt my word.

Those and the many other examples of Berlioz’s self-borrowings only underscore another quality of his works: like the film director Stanley Kubrick, Berlioz tackled a number of different genres to create a body of work that could have issued from no-one else, yet each component of which evokes its own unique world. Being a non-pianist may have had something to do with it: Berlioz played the flute and, to a lesser extent, the guitar.

He took as his mission the challenge to upend the received idea of the orchestra, and set off his differences with a bang in his Symphonie Fantastique. It’s performed here by Jean Martinon and Orchestra of Radio France, and features the optional cornet part (played by Jacques Lecointre) that I’ve heard in no other recording. The same forces continue with Lélio, or the Return to Life, written as a follow-up to Fantastique, yet utterly different (shared musical elements notwithstanding), a patchwork that’s not nearly as effective. Yet it works as an over-the-top curiosity, giving the fine voice actor Jean Topart the chance to impersonate a state of madness – with his sung moment provided by none other than Nicolai Gedda.

Between 1975 and 1979, Leonard Bernstein made a number of recordings and broadcasts in Paris with the Orchestra National de France, and Warner Classics has issued them in a seven-CD box. Drawn from that collection is his “Harold in Italy,” which is probably Berlioz’s second-best-known work, with soloist Donald McInnes. It was meant to be a viola concerto for Paganini, but the soloist was dismayed by the lack of virtuoso fireworks in the piece and didn’t perform it. However, upon hearing it in 1838, he was so moved that he awarded Berlioz 20,000 francs – enough to finance Berlioz’s next work, the dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette.

Which is a piece that turns convention on its ear. It’s presented as a symphony with chorus and soloists – but the title characters aren’t among them. It’s intended to convey the emotional turbulence of the story without letting too much plot get in the way. Toscanini championed it; so did Munch. Here we have Riccardo Muti conducting, and he understands the piece well. Jessye Norman, John Aler, and Simon Estes are the soloists, so you’re in good hands. Let yourself get drawn into the work. Surrender to it, and you’ll be ready for the even bigger pieces to follow.

Like Kent Nagano’s journey through The Damnation of Faust. Berlioz liked the grand gesture; here it’s a poor bastard’s soul at stake. Tenor Thomas Moser strikes the deal with José van Dam, both in excellent voice, while Susan Graham is the woman Faust betrays despite her own passion (“D’amour l’ardente flamme”). Another of those moments of unexpected gentleness occurs in this piece with the dreamlike “Dance of the Sylphs,” which proved too beautiful to leave unsullied – Saint-Saëns did mean things to it in his “Carnival of the Animals.” 

The rarely performed Benvenuto Cellini is the first of the three operas contained herein, and I’m taking the opportunity to make its acquaintance. I can report that tenor Gregory Kunde is very convincing in the title role (which he also sang on a Colin Davis recording), and is well paired with soprano Patrizia Cioffi as Teresa, the woman he wishes to marry against her father’s wishes (or this wouldn’t be an opera). John Nelson conducts Orchestra National de France.

He helms the forces in the other two operas as well, but can the massive, distressing Les Troyens really be the work of the composer of Béatrice et Bénédict? They’re both stories of character and stories of love. Berlioz was captivated by The Aeneid from childhood; Shakespeare came later, but both, it can be argued, influenced both. Yet the two operas couldn’t seem more different. Béatrice et Bénédict has the flavor of a chamber piece, and the composer’s libretto places the quarreling leads against an merry subplot of his own devising. It’s a culmination of his love for Shakespeare, and reminds us that Berlioz was a skilled librettist. The recording features the chorus and orchestra of the Lyon National Opera and pits Susan Graham against Jean-Luc Viala as the title characters, while Gilles Cachemaille and Sylvia McNair are Claudio and Héro, the other lovers in the piece. They’re featutred less, but McNair kills it with the aria “Je vais le voir.” And this version has the distinction of featuring the spoken dialogue, which features a cast of fluent actors doubling the roles. (You can read a sardonic comment about the work by conductor Erich Leinsdorf here.)

Which makes this a good moment to pause with a complaint – really, my only one – about this collection: the slim booklet provides no libretti. Many of them are findable on the internet, but Warner Classics could have developed a web page to accompany this set with all the needed texts. It does feature a good background essay by David Cairns, a Berlioz specialist who not only edited the definitive version of the composer’s Memoirs but also authored an authoritative two-volume biography.

Les Troyens may be best known for the “Royal Hunt and Storm” segment that’s played as a stand-alone piece, but I challenge you to dive into the three-and-a-half hours of its entirety. It’s the culminating work in the set; it was the culminating work of the composer’s life. He never saw it performed in its entirety. It took a long time to enter the repertory – but that’s true of much of this composer’s music. Here it’s the Strasbourg Philharmonic and a cast that includes Michael Spyes, Stéphane Degout, Jean Teitgen, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, and, as mentioned much earlier, Joyce DiDonato. Try to take it in at one sitting – or at least over the course of a day. There’s a rewarding cumulative effect awaiting (although that’s true of most of the longer works here).

We get a glimpse of how Les Troyens was interpreted closer to its composer’s time with recordings of two of its arias from 1903 and 1904 – it was a much more parlando world back then. There are also historical recordings of excerpts from Damnation of Faust and a 1924 recording (its first) of the Symphonie Fantastique. The set is also filled out with some Berlioz arrangements, like his well-known orchestration of Weber’s “Invitation to the Dance” and his less-known (but quite effective) ditto of Schubert’s Erlkönig.

And when you’ve gone through it all, give an encore listen to the Requiem. It takes on new shadings when you’ve heard Berlioz’s other voices; Roméo et Juliette seems like a warm-up to it; Damnation of Faust a sequel. And the finish of the Requiem’s Agnus Dei is one of the most beautiful moments in all of music, a moment that demands an encore of silence. “If I were threatened with the destruction of all my works but one,” Berlioz told a friend, “I should beg mercy for the Requiem.” But all the works are nicely contained within this set, and will reward continued listening.

Hector Berlioz: The Complete Works
27 Compact Discs
Warner Classics

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