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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Te Deum
Roberto Alagna (tenor)
Marie-Claire Alain (organ)
EU Children's Choir, Maîtrise d'Antony Children's Choir
Orchestra de Paris & Chorus/John Nelson
Rec 19 & 20 February 2000, Salle de la Mutualité, Paris
VIRGIN CLASSICS 7243 5 45449 2 7 [57.40]
 £12.50  AmazonUK  £13.99  AmazonUS

The Te Deum is among Berlioz's greatest achievements, and like so many of his major works its sheer scale precludes frequent performance. A recording, like a live performance, is a special event and is worthy of special attention. The catalogue will never contain large numbers of recordings of this piece, but any recording will likely have its particular virtues and features of interest.

John Nelson is an experienced Berlioz conductor and his vision is strongly and thoughtfully projected. Indeed the music gains greatly from his direction, both in terms of interpretation and control. The latter is actually rather important in the Te Deum, with its large forces, often separated, as at the very beginning when Berlioz intended that the organ and the orchestra should be at opposite ends of the building. Without the benefit of genuine 'surround sound', of course, the listener can only imagine this effect, but the Virgin Classics engineers certainly do enough to conjure appropriate imagery, not least because the organ of the Madeleine was used and then dubbed on to the performance with the aid of studio technology (this is hardly a new phenomenon).

Another special feature of this disc is that it contains more music than its rivals. The extra items are not exactly the best of Berlioz, but they are of interest. There is the original Prelude, which the composer planned and then abandoned, and a final 'March for the Presentation of the Colours'. The latter comes last of all, following the great Judex Crederis, and thankfully there is ample time to avoid listening to it if one so chooses. Both these orchestral items reveal clear links with the Te Deum itself, using the same thematic material, but they are not essential parts of the work, as the composer himself determined.

This work has only one solo, the tenor in the Te ergo quaesumus. It is delivered with firm conviction by the splendid Roberto Alagna, in an acoustic balance that seems near-ideal. The same cannot quite be said of the remainder of the performance, however. For example, the organ sound is somewhat muffled in its quieter, more exposed passages, while in the fully scored sections orchestral details become obscured. But there is no lack of impact, with full resonant tone in climaxes and strong contributions from the combined choral forces.

John Nelson chooses tempi which articulate the music strongly, not dashing ahead in faster music, nor dragging indulgently. The performance has great conviction and presence, and while the recorded sound might have been even better than it is (it remains satisfactory), this is probably the best available recording of this wonderful work, despite the excellence of Colin Davis, Sir Thomas Beecham and Claudio Abbado.

Terry Barfoot

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