BERLIOZ: Huit scénes de Faust, Op. 1. L'Impériale,
Op. 26. Sur les lagunes. Le Chasseur danois, Op. 19 No. 6. Plaisir
d'amour (Martini arr. Berlioz).
Hymne des Marseillais (Rouget de Lisle, arr. Berlioz).
Susan Graham, soprano; Susanne Mentzer, mezzo-soprano; John Mark Ainsley,
tenor; Philip Cokorinos, baritone; Pierre Vincent Plante, cor nglais;
Davis Joachim, guitar; Françoix Le Roux, baritone; Philippe Rouillon,
bass; Gordon Gietz, tenor; Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Charles
DECCA 475 097 (F) (DDD) TT: 68:46
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The bicentennial of Berlioz’s birth on December 11 produced fewer
recordings than the disc business today might have mustered had he been
born, say, in 1793 rather than 1803. But there have been several appreciations,
novelties among them, including this disc of his first self-opus-ed work.
He would later on, of course, rework the scope, text and materials as
La damnation de Faust in 1845, although some of the music (with
comparatively minor changes later on) already appears in Op.1, published
in 1829 as “Eight
Scenes”—nine, actually; two of them run together.
Most notable are Marguerite’s “Autrefois un roi de Thule,” and
Romance “Une amoureuse flamme” (in the 1829 original) with
its English horn obligato already in place. Mephisto’s “Serenade” was
originally assigned to a high tenor rather than the baritone of 1845,
and accompanied only by a guitar, but otherwise looks forward to the
later, greater, more extended work.
What’s here, therefore, amounts to more than a curio, and is sung
by and large most touchingly, especially by soprano Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano
Susanne Mentzer (as Marguerite), and tenor John Mark Ainsley. They are
joined later on in additional repertoire, including Berlioz’s massive
1830 setting of “La Marseillais” (extra stanzas here than
EMI gave us in Roberto Alagna’s Berlioz recital last year, only
one of which is sung by tenor Gordon Gietz rather than all, as Alagna
did strenuously with increasing vocal strain). Gietz is no prize, but
the adult and children’s choruses of Montréal are. That
said, I prefer Bertrand de Billy’s rousing leadership of Alagna’s
version to Charles Dutoit’s steady but oddly pedestrian leadership.
The same is true of a rather trashy hymn from 1854 to Napoleon III, “L’Impériale,” which
Berlioz published as Op 26, calling its 9-minute duration a cantata for
1,200 players and choristers.
Sheer poetry, on the other hand, is Dutoit’s accompaniment for
baritone Francoix le Roux’s masterful singing of “Sur les
lagunes” from Les Nuits d’été as Berlioz
orchestrated it in 1856. Le Roux also sings, again beautifully,
orchestration circa 1859 of of "Plaisir d’amour” by
Martini from the 18th century. Which leaves, in this 68:46 collection, “Le
Chasseur danois” (Op. 19, No. 6), composed to words by the son
of Count Ribbing, who conspired to assassinate Sweden’s Gustav
III during a masked ball that Verdi set to music. It lasts just 3:09 – “Le
Chasseur” that is – but is robustly sung by bass Philippe
It should be said that the entire contents of this disc was recorded
by Decca in 1995-96, and held for release until now. It is not the most
splendorous sound we’ve heard in the past from Montréal’s Église
St. Eustache, with the “Marseillaise” somewhat more reticent
sonically than the rest. But it certainly deserves to keep company with
the cantatas Naxos released last year from Lille, and Alagna’s
collection for those who are not put off by a certain overparted quality
in his voice at the time he made it. Apropos the later La damnation
de Faust, Op. 24, buyers lucky enough to be members of the Musical
Heritage Society have been able since 1997 to buy Seiji Ozawa’s
superb version recorded in 1973 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood
Chorus and soloists Edith Mathis, Stuart Burrows and Donald McIntyre,
licensed from Polygram and still a vibrant recording. In 1996 Myung-Whun
Chung recorded it for Polygram with Anne-Sophie von Otter, Keith Lewis,
Bryn Terfel, and the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus; I don’t
know this but reviews at the time were laudatory verging on ecstatic.
I do, however, know versions by Solti/Chicago, Munch/Boston, Barenboim/Orchestre
de Paris, Monteux/LondonSO, and others that are not really in Ozawa’s
class as a reading, playing or solo singing.
R.D. (January 2004)
Reviewer’s note: Since writing the last paragraph, I found online,
bought and wallowed in the Chung performance, released by DGG in 1998.
Add my name to the “ecstatic” list. Without abandoning
respect or affection for the Japonaiserie of Ozawa’s
30-year old Boston version on MHS, Chung’s by comparison is the
equivalent of Delacroix painting, thrillingly sung chorally as well
as soloistically, played
to a fare-thee-well by the Philharmonia, and recorded with a brilliance
and impact I have not heard from any other DGG disc before or since – as
impactful as HDCD, using a 23-bit Sony process explained in detail
in the program book. But it demands a rugged, wide-range system to
recording justice. In any event, you don’t need to join MHS for
a great recording of a great work.