BERLIOZ: Les Nuits d'été. Pantomime de l'acte II of Les Troyens. RAVEL: Cinq Mélodies populaires grecques. Pavane pour une Infante déunte. FAURÉ: En sourdine, Mandoline. Clair de Lune. Elégie for cello and orch.
David Daniels, countertenor;Guillaume Paoletti, cello; Daniel Catalonotti, horn; Richard Vieille, clarinet; Daniel Arrignon, oboe; Ensemble Orchestral de Paris/John Nelson, cond.
VIRGIN CLASSICS 5455646 (F) (DDD) TT: 68:56

Although Berlioz composed his richly expressive, six-song cycle Les nuits d’été in 1840-41, to poems by Théophile Gautier, for voice and piano originally but orchestrated in 1843 (“Absence”) and 1856 (the other five), it was never recorded complete until April 1951. Ninon Villon had sung the first song (“Villanelle”) on a French Pathé 78, and Maggie Teyte the second and fourth (“Le spectre de la rose” and “Absence,” respectively) on a pre-war, HMV 78-rpm with orchestra. But the entire cycle languished until Suzanne Danco recorded it for London/Decca in Cincinnati (!) with Thor Johnson conducting – a performance that survives today on Pearl for the curious to hear. Three years later Eleanor Steber recorded it rapturously with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the “Columbia Symphony Orchestra” of NYC players, whereupon the floodgates opened. Victoria de los Angeles sang it prettily but without much passion for RCA with Charles Munch in Boston, but it was Régine Crespin who finally made a complete recording by a French artist in 1963, albeit with a Swiss conductor, Ernest Ansermet, and the Suisse Romande Orchestra of Geneva. In 1969 Colin Davis conducted a version Berlioz suggested for several different singers in various of the songs, and also one with Jessye Norman alone a decade later, both for Philips. Janet Baker made an early, fresher version that Brits are especially fond of with Barbirolli for EMI as well as a post- prime remake in 1990 for Virgin with Richard Hickox. Yvonne Minton joined the field with Boulez in the ‘70s, who remade it recently with more than one singer. Kiri te Kanawa was DGG’s sweet-voiced but interpretively saucer-eyed contestant with Daniel Barenboim and Orchestre de Paris, which I’ve kept only because the pairing is a magisterial performance by Jessye Norman of La mort de Cléopâtre.

I still have the Danco in a London “historic” reissue released in 1991, with three Ravel cycles as companions (Ansermet conducting, who else in those days on Decca?), although the transfer is shrill and the Berlioz performances are conscientious rather than compelling. But it was the first – including my own debut at a commercial recording session, produced by Remy Van Wyck Farkas. A decade later I attended Leontyne Price’s vocally luscious RCA recording with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, along with Falla’s El Amor Brujo which she sang blood-curdlingly (but which Reiner partly spoiled with a largo tempo in “Pantomime”). There have been other Nuits d’été before, in between and since (the most disappointing for me by Anne-Sophie von Otter with laid-back James Levine conducting the Berlin Phil) but, until this new version by countertenor David Daniels on Virgin Classics, Steber has reigned as the most poignant, probing, voluptuously- voiced interpreter on a finely remastered Masterworks Heritage CD. She even sings three bonus songs by Berlioz: “La captive,” “Le jeune pâtre breton,” and “Zaïde” – those conducted by Jean Morel – at which point Berlioz lovers will want to checkout: sacred stuff by Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mendelssohn follows, movingly sung but not companionable.
Now we have a version that challenges Steber in at least three songs, sung in exquisite French by a voice that hasn’t a falsetto note in it. Daniels, a countertenor par excellence, is superbly musical and interpretively subtle (poor Danco and te Kanawa in comparison), who never makes a sound not distinctively his own, both in Nuits d’été, in Ravel’s Cinq Mélodies populaires grecques (just in time for the Athens Games), and in three Fauré songs tastefully orchestrated by Gil Shohat. In all of these he is partnered hand-in-glove by John Nelson and an Ensemble Orchestral de Paris that boasts a world-class clarinet, oboe and horn (Nelson had already conducted a Nuits d’été for Sony with Sandra Graham, a version I’ve never heard). Following Nuits, as a kind of sorbet, he leads “Pantomime” from the second act of Berlioz’s Les Troyens. Ravel’s cycle is followed by the ubiquitous Pavane (surely something less trite could have been chosen), and after the Fauré a full- blooded, verging on melodramatic reading of the Élégie for cello and orchestra, except that the cellist is mediocre. But one can program the disc to omit Pavane and Élégie, concentrating on the artistry of David Daniels, which is singular. Add recorded sound of uncommon substance and character from IRCAM in Paris, produced by Daniel Zalay and engineered by Frederic Briant. EMI/Virgin has given us a treasure that surely will win honors when 2004 has wound-down. Meanwhile, Steber and Daniels do lend respective insights and vocal luster to a cycle loved for more than half a century. Discovery in the best cases remains etched in the brain; I cannot imagine even Alzheimer’s erasing it.

R.D. (May 2004)