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Hector BERLIOZ (1803 – 1869)
Roméo et Juliette, Op. 17 (1839)
Hanna Schwarz (alto)
Philip Langridge (tenor)
Peter Meven (bass)
Bavarian Radio Orchestra and Chorus/Sir Colin Davis.
rec. live, Kulturzentrum Gasteig, Munich, 1985
Sound format PCM Stereo
ARTHAUS MUSIK 102 017 DVD [102:00]

For some reason Arthaus is reticent about giving full recording details for this splendid recording. Also, in the notes, they are at pains to point out that the bass soloist, Peter Meven, died in 2003 at the ripe old age of 74. However, once the DVD has played itself out, the credits give the recording date as 1985, so all is well, with Peter Meven being therefore only 56 at the time of the sessions.

We have been very lucky with Berlioz over the years with superb recordings by acknowledged Berlioz experts such as Munch, Monteux, Beecham, and in more recent times, Sir Colin Davis.

Davis’s interpretation of Berlioz’s dramatic symphony is well known although his reading has changed somewhat over the years. It has gradually slowed down. When this concert was recorded he was in fine form. By the way, his well-known ‘vocalisations’ which have taken the gilt off a few of his recent LSO Live discs are less in evidence here.

Although Davis recorded the symphony for Philips with the Vienna Philharmonic using the current chorus there has been relatively little Berlioz from his Bavarian Radio days. The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, a very fine orchestra, is here caught in fine fettle, following their chief conductor’s directions to the letter. The lower strings are particularly fine and this shows to stunning effect through the big climax of the love scene.

The soloists are excellent with Hanna Schwarz singing the Strophes immaculately, setting the scene for Philip Langridge to perform the relatively short tenor part with his usual style and accuracy. Berlioz was unwilling to allow the solo voices to express the emotions of the Romeo and Juliet story. The voices were therefore used as commentary to the story rather than central to the action. The emotional burden is carried by the orchestra. This is not to say that the choral and solo vocal parts are unimportant, but the central core is without doubt orchestral.

For Roméo et Juliette to make the requisite effect it needs an orchestra and conductor who are absolutely in accord with the composer’s wishes. With this performance this is exactly what we have. Having seen Davis perform this symphony a few times in London with the LSO at the Barbican, this DVD brought back many memories - all of them positive.

Are there any shortcomings with this live recording? Audience noise is often a problem if there are no chances to patch and repair serious mishaps. On this DVD there are very few of these problems once the concert has started. Before the performance gets underway there is an absolute cacophony of coughing and spluttering from the audience which lead me to think that I was in for a rough ride. Apart from a few loud coughs during Hanna Schwarz’s Strophes, just before the very moving solo cello interjection before the last verse, and then again during the funeral scene just before the final chorus, the audience is commendably quiet.

I would have thought that the composer’s use of antique cymbals at the close of the Queen Mab scherzo would have warranted a brief appearance. They were clearly audible, but are not visible at all. A pity.

Finally, Peter Meven sings his part in the last chorus with aplomb, although at times his pitching could have been a little more accurate. However, he sounds convincingly like Friar Lawrence, which is how it should be. I was very pleased to listen to his stentorian voice, taking command of this last movement to great effect.

This DVD is highly recommended, particularly for fans of Sir Colin Davis and the composer. Judging by the reception from a capacity audience they were also in agreement.

John Phillips




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