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 Dutoit, cond.
DECCA 475 097 (F) (DDD) TT: 68:46

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, Berlioz’s 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 Rouillin.

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 Festival 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 do the recording justice. In any event, you don’t need to join MHS for a great recording of a great work.