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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)

Roméo et Juliette (1838)
Olga Borodina (mezzo soprano), Thomas Moser (tenor), Alastair Miles (bass)
Bavarian Radio Chorus
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Overtures: Béatrice et Bénédict (1862), Le Roi Lear (1831), Les Francs-Juges (1827), Waverley (1827), Le Corsaire (1831)
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis
Recorded Dec 1977, London (Béatrice et Bénédict), October 1965, London (other overtures); June 1993, Musikverein, Vienna (Roméo et Juliette)
PHILIPS 470 543-2 [2CDs: 78.57+73.19]


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For a generation Sir Colin Davis has maintained his position as the world's finest Berlioz conductor. And since these performances span a generation, from 1965 to 1993, this 2CD set makes a splendid tribute to his achievement.

The major work here is the dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette, which combines two of the recurring points of inspiration for this composer: Shakespeare and Italy. The Introduction, with its images of the street skirmishes of the Montagues and the Capulets, has that same fast-tempo precision that marked Davis's earlier recording with the LSO. Here, as elsewhere, he is supported by excellent playing from the Vienna Philharmonic, who revel in the opportunities that Berlioz provides, whether in the darting gossamer textures of the Queen Mab Scherzo or, more still, in the sumptuous expressive warmth of the Love Scene.

In fact there are but a few caveats in the way of an unequivocal recommendation. While the recorded sound is clear and, when necessary, full bodied too, the solo voices do seem to be placed a long way forward, sounding almost larger-than-life. This is less so in the complex choral-orchestral finale, but even then the balancing does not seem entirely natural. There are a few extraneous noises too, which the remastering process might have done more to eliminate.

The most exciting part of the performance (and of the dramatic symphony itself?) is Roméo at the Capulet's Feast, which combines the different identities of the musical material in masterly fashion. This device is a favourite technique of the composer, and never was he more successful in employing it. Davis handles these complexities with a magnificent command of both sonority and rhythmic contrast, and the results are thrilling.

There are useful booklet notes by John Warrack and Hugh Macdonald, but alas no texts and translations, which is a sorry misjudgement. Since Berlioz went to the trouble to use words from Shakespeare, surely purchasers of so distinguished a performance as this should have the option of having access to them?

A generous collection of overtures completes the package. All save Béatrice et Bénédict were recorded in 1965, but the recorded sound passes muster very well indeed. And so too the performances, which, as ever with Davis, have an ideal fusion of rhythmic attack and expressive warmth. Again and again the special qualities of a piece are projected, and it is hard to believe that some of these pieces - Les Francs-Juges and Le Roi Lear, for instance - could have ever been done better.

The Béatrice et Bénédict performance dates from rather later, in 1977, and again the sound is excellent. The performance faces its own challenges, with a lighter, more lyrical character, and again Davis triumphs, as does the LSO.

Terry Barfoot


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