BERLIOZ: Herminie (Lyrical scene for soprano and orchestra). La Mort de Cléopâtre (Lyrical scene for soprano and orchestra). La Mort de Sardanapale (Cantata for tenor, male chorus and orchestra). La Mort d'Orphée (Monologue and Bacchanale for tenor, female chorus and orchestra).
Michèle Lagrange, soprano; Béatrice Uria-Monzon, mezzo-soprano; Danie Galvez Vallejo, tenor; Choeur Régional Nord/Pas-de-Calais; Orchestre National de Lille, Région Nord/Pas-de-Calais/Jean-Claude Casadesus, cond.
NAXOS 8.555810 (B) (DDD) TT: 60:45

The EMI collection of tenor music by Berlioz starring Roberto Alagna that I reviewed in July had one notable omission, La Mort d’Orphée, which was the composer's first submission in 1827 for a Prix de Rome. Who his competitors were and for what has been forgotten by and large, except in the archives of the Paris Conservatoire. The gimmick was: a group of academic greybeards chose a text that prize-seekers set to music, preferably in the style (or styles) of the greybeards, accompanied in performance by a piano. Berlioz applied five times but failed even to make the cut in 1826. But he persevered and finally won in 1830, by which time he was 27, but with a work he so despised, La mort de Sardanapale, that he destroyed it. Yet not all was lost; portions from the obligatory premiere survived, altogether almost six minutes of music, included on this extraordinary CD—the first that has collected all four of the young composer’s allowable submissions. The participants listed in the headnote recorded them in1994-95 for Harmonia Mundi France, from which Naxos has obtained the masters either by lease or outright purchase.

If surviving pages are an example of the whole, Berlioz was not wrong to disdain Sardanapale, written for tenor, male chorus and orchestra, although one remains nonetheless curious about the rest. Just as one remains curious to hear Ravel’s several submissions at the end of the 19th and beginning of the early 20th centuries—irrespective of quality. He, too, was chronically rejected and finally quit trying. Back to the subject at hand, Berlioz’s only other “novelty” besides the prize- winning fragment is La mort d’Orphée for tenor soloist, female chorus and orchestra, which I’ve kept in a Denon collection of cantatas recorded live during a concert at Utrecht in 1987 by Jean Fournet and the Dutch Radio Orchestra and Choir. His soloist was Gerard Gardino (otherwise unknown) who lacked both the clarion fach and musical thrust of Daniel Galvez Vallejo in Lille eight years later. Alagna might even be jealous. Orphée lost to something by Ernest Guiraud, who has survived in history almost solely for his orchestration of the spoken parts in the original Opéra-comique versions of Carmen and The Tales of Hoffmann.

The other two Prix pieces, however, have survived in the repertory of bravura singers: Herminie (1828), the princess of Antioch in love with the knight Tancredi, adapted from Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata, and the thrilling La mort de Cléopâtre (1829). The former was a specialty of Janet Baker, despite her basic blandness of temperament and slightly boxy phrasing, although Colin Davis conducted both works. The reigning queen among Cleopatra singers was, and remains, Jessye Norman despite a wooden accompaniment by Daniel Barenboim and Orchestre de Paris. This is about to be reissued in a 10-CD box by DG, but you may find copies (if you’re lucky) in second-hand stores, coupled with Kiri te Kanawa’s sufficiently charming and luciously sung Les nuits d’étè. In La mort, Mezzo Béatrice Uria-Monzon on Naxos is no Norman although her singing is musical and her sense of drama alert in a performance almost three minutes faster than Norman’s. But Michèle Lagrange is a marvelous Herminie (reminding one that Anne Pashley, likewise a soprano rather than a mezzo, also made a notable recording of it).

Special kudos go, withal, to conductor Jean-Claude Casadesus, to the style born—a master Berliozian. Add the idiomatic, pitch-on response of the Lille Orchestra and Chorus, and engineering so acoustically “right” and finely balanced, despite the variety of musical demands—credit Jean-Martial Golaz in the double role—that one cannot believe a Frenchman was responsible. If that sounds patronizing or anti-Chirac, listen to the boom-box sound of most EMI recordings over the years from La Salle Wagram at Paris. Not least, Keith Anderson’s notes are a thread through the labyrinth, and texts for everything are included in French and English! A chorus of “bravos,” then, for the performers, their producer-engineer, and whoever at Naxos had the sagacity to acquire and issue this collection.

R.D. (October 2003)