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Berlioz, the fourth B

by Joel Kasow

PARIS - Where would Berlioz be today without Sir Colin Davis? After the efforts of Monteux and Munch, Davis took over, recording just about everything and now giving us the benefit of his latest thoughts. Yes, there have been other noted Berliozians, but Davis remains preeminent. All I can say about his new recording of Roméo is that it ranks with Monteux, than which there is no higher praise to my mind. There is the combination of restraint combined with touches of madness which make the music of Berlioz come alive. Davis knows exactly how to combine these two opposing elements to make his interpretations of this reputedly difficult music sizzle.

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra - no stranger to Berlioz even thought they don't perform his music with any degree of regularity - rises to the challenge while the Bavarian Radio Chorus rarely betrays its origins with more than acceptable French. The vocal soloists are placed too far forward so that Olga Borodina's remarkable interpretation suffers from the lack of distance. Thomas Moser sounds matter of fact in the Queen Mab solo, but Alastair Miles' Frère Laurent pleasantly surprised me with a newly acquired authority. A must acquisition.

Unfortunately, Charles Dutoit was having an off day during the recording sessions for Damnation de Faust : the performance is too polite, lacking in dynamism, too smooth. The orchestral playing or singing cannot be faulted but there is something lacking which would impose a coherence on the performance. It is unfortunate because Françoise Pollet, Richard Leech and Gilles Cachemaille have something to offer which simply falls flat. The addition of a third disc with 27 unlabeled minutes crudely excerpted from Dutoit's recording of Les Troyens strikes me as unlikely to stimulate purchases of the set under review and even more unlikely to incite listeners to purchase the opera in its entirety.

A pleasant surprise is the reissue of Davis's first recording of Béatrice et Bénédict, which even without dialogue remains the most vivacious version of a work teeming with charm. Josephine Veasey and John Mitchinson remain unsurpassed in the title roles, and Davis's evident relishing of an unfamiliar work is evident throughout, communicating to the listener from the very start. The set is rounded out by one of John Eliot Gardiner's first recordings (dating from 1967) of Berlioz featuring the freshly founded Monteverdi Choir. Thanks to Decca for the reissue on Caractère, two discs for the price of one.

ROMEO ET JULIETTE. Olga Borodina (mezzo-soprano), Thomas Moser (tenor), Alastair Miles (bass).

Sir Colin Davis, conductor
the Bavarian Radio Chorus and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

PHILIPS 442 134-2. (2 cds)

LA DAMNATION DE FAUST. Françoise Pollet (Marguérite); Richard Leech (Faust); Gilles Cachemaille (Mephistophélès); Michel Philippe (Brander).

Charles Dutoit, conductor
the Chorus and l'Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal

DECCA 444 812-2 (2 cds).

BEATRICE ET BENEDICT. Josephine Veasey (Béatrice); John Mitchinson (Bénédict); April Cantelo (Héro); John Cameron (Claudio); Helen Watts (Ursule); John Shirley-Quirk (Don Pédro); Eric Shilling (Somarone). Sir Colin Davis conducint the St. Anthony Singers and the London Symphony Orchestra. Irlande, Le Trébuchet, La Mort d'Ophélie, Chant de la fête de Pâques. April Cantelo (soprano), Helen Watts (alto), Robert Tear (tenor), Richard Salter (bass), Viola Tunnard (piano). John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Monteverdi Choir (2 cds). DECCA 448 113-2.

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