BERLIOZ: Sara la baigneuse, Op. 11. Tristia, Op. 18 (Ce monde entier n'est qu'une ombre fugitive). La mort d'Ophélie (Auprés d'un torrent Ophélie). March funèbre pour la dernière scene de Hamlet. Le ballet des ombres, Op. 2 (Formez vos rangs, entrez en danse!). Chant sacré, Op. 2 No 6 (Dieu tour-puissant, Dieu de l'aurore).Veni Creator Spiritus. Tatum ergo sacramentum. Scene heroique (La Révolution grecque) (Lève-toi, flis de Sparte! Mais' la voix du Dieu des armées. Astre terribe et saint, guide les pas du brave! Des sommets de l'Olympe. Le Cinq mai, Op. 6 (Des Espagnols m'ont pris sur leur navire). La mort d'Orphée (Introduction, Prêtesses de Bacchus... O seul bien qui me reste! Quels cris affreux se font entendre? O Dieu puissant, fils de Latone...O Bacchus Evoé! Chant guerrier, Op. 2 No. 3. (N'oublions pas ces champs, dont la poussière). Chanson à boire, Op. 2 No. 5 (Amis, la coupe écume); Chant des chemins de fer, Op. 19 No. 3 (C'est le grand jour, le jour de fête). Chant sacré, Op. 2 No. 6 (Dieu tout-puissant, Dieu de l'aurore). Hymne pour la consécreation du nouveau tabernale (Bien que le ciel parfois se couvre d'un nuage).
Rolando Villazon, tenor; Nicolas Rivenq, baritone; Laurent Naouri, bass; Davis Bismuth, piano; Frank Villars, harmonium; Choeur Les Eléments; Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse/Michel Plasson, cond.
EMI CLASSICS 57499 (2 CDs) (F) (DDD) TT: 62:52 & 59:50

Just when it seemed that the bicentenary of Hector Berlioz’s birth (in 1803) would be the victim of an ongoing crisis in the recording industry—make that a Monster-Conglomerate industry, subdivision Classical Music—there has been some remedy, apart from Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony on their own label which I’ve not heard, only read about. To the aria and chanson recital by Roberto Alagna (see REVIEW) that EMI issued in 2003 before dropping him from their roster, EMI Classics has added this two-disc collection of choral works, including several rarities accompanied by piano. It manages not to retrace territory already staked out on available discs (available being an operative word) apart from three choruses collected and published as Tristia—including the exquisite Mort d’Ophélie—in 1852, and the startlingly original “monolog and bacchanal,” La mort d’ Orphée of 1827, composed to woo the Prix de Rome pontifices but rejected by them. The latter appears both in Denon’s “Cantatas” collection from the Netherlands and in Decca’s recently released Huit scènes de Faust compendium (see REVIEW) from Montréal.

From Toulouse, however, it takes first prize thanks to the clarion solo performance of Rolando Villazon, an emerging Mexican tenor whose recent recital disc was enthusiastically reviewed by K.M.(REVIEW). I hear three registers as recorded last April, but a ringing top voice that gains in power as it ascends and makes one hope he will integrate his middle- and chest-voices. In addition, Villazon sings in three chants based on texts by Thomas Moore, translated into French by Thomas Gounet (plus a second version of Chant sacré), and in a rousing Chant des chemins de fer composed in 1846 for the opening of a rail line between Lille and Paris. Michel Plasson conducts vigorously—altogether more persuasively than Decca’s Charles Dutoit, although a measure laid back in some of the piano-accompanied choruses of Berlioz’s early and late years.

There are two major works from his early period, the four-part Scène hèroïque (a.k.a. La Révolution grecque, which gives these two discs their collective title) dating from 1825-26, and Le Cinq de Mai, an homage to Napoleon based on the poem by Pierre-Jean de Beranger that Berlioz intended to make a large-scale tribute to Napoleon’s Italian victories but never completed. By 1834 he was an audacious orchestrator and some of the effects are startlingly ingenious, leading to a great climax and then a dying away. One other virtually forgotten but vivid work is the “ballad” published as Op. 11, Sara la baigneuse to words by Victor Hugo for mixed chorus and orchestra, originally composed in 1834 but subsequently reset for three choruses—one female, another male, and the third mixed. Subject matter caused raised eyebrows even in France, an odalisque bathing languidly before emerging nude from the pool, but the treatment is suitably delicate and a charming addition to the recorded legacy of Berlioz.
The recording from Toulouse’s Halles aux Grains is spacious but a little recessed even in music that begs for a sharper edge and immediacy. One can boost the gain, of course, but there was no point on my equipment when the sound suddenly “bloomed.” Nor are Hugh Macdonald’s compressed program notes easy to follow, but admirably indeed EMI included all texts in French and English. The set is welcome as well as overall admirable, for which Plasson, his chorus and soloists (both baritone and bass are commendable, albeit with much less to do than Villazon, who really is a major discovery). Recommended.

R.D. (February 2004)