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CD: Buywell

Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie fantastique (1830) [52:46]
Romeo et Juliette (1839) [94:50]
Harold en Italie (1834) [42:13]
Rêverie et caprice (1841) [7:58]
Yvonne Minton (mezzo); Francisco Araiza (tenor); Jules Bastin (bass); Orchestre de Paris Chorus, Orchestre de Paris/Daniel Barenboim; Berliner Philharmoniker/Lorin Maazel; Orpheus Chamber Orchestra/Guillermo Figueroa
rec. 1979, 1980, 1985, 1991
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON ELOQUENCE 480 0714 [3 CDs: 71:45 + 76:00 + 50:18]
Experience Classicsonline

I began listening to this compilation with a completely open mind, but soon found myself bemused by why anyone would bother to assemble such a lifeless, mediocre medley of Berlioz performances when there are so many great ones to be found in the catalogue. The main fault lies with Barenboim's conducting. He has done Berlioz proud elsewhere, but here seems to have no idea what to do with the two great works he undertakes: both the "Symphonie fantastique" and "Roméo et Juliette" are devoid of the rhythmic élan and vitality which characterise Berlioz's music; the "Scène d'amour" in the latter, in particular, is utterly without erotic tension and the "Marche au supplice" in the symphony limps along aimlessly. It is not a question of timings; comparison with Bernstein reveals little difference there. The problem is more in the lack of feeling for the phrasing required. Barenboim frequently engineers apparently random rallentandi or sudden changes in dynamics without any apparent expressive justification and the results are painfully unengaging.

Turning to Bernstein, one is thrilled by a sense of recognition and rightness; that's how the music should go. In Ozawa's lovely account of the "Roméo", the music ebbs and surges just as Barenboim's doesn't; nor are the Orchestre de Paris any match for Bernstein's Orchestre National de France or Ozawa's Boston Symphony Orchestra - although again, I suspect that has more to do with Barenboim's lacklustre direction. The recording quality does not help; it is muffled, boomy and lacking definition; the sound picture remains confused and muddied.

Things improve in Maazel's account of "Harold en Italie" but Wolfram Christ is a bland, retiring soloist compared with classic accounts such as that by Joseph de Pasquale and Ormandy (or even the classic 1955 mono recording with Hans Kirchner under Markevitch) and, once more, the recording quality is superior in that bargain Sony disc. To compound the general weakness of this three disc set, the listings absurdly credit Christa Ludwig as well as the excellent Yvonne Minton as taking part in the performance of the "Roméo", but of course there is room for only one lower female voice, and that is Minton. (You can indeed hear Ludwig's lovely version of this music on Maazel's account on Decca, alongside Ghiaurov and Michel Sénéchal - a superb set which is still unaccountably unavailable on CD.) Minton is the best of the soloists; Araiza is nimble but not especially ingratiating of tone and Jules Bastin, while idiomatic and expressive, does not have the weight of voice the part needs, such as brought to it by José van Dam or Robert Lloyd.

You will have gathered by now that I found no real raison d'etre for this issue and wonder what the folks at Universal Music Australia were thinking of when they cobbled it together. Every piece here - with the possible exception of the "Rêverie et caprice" - is surpassed by another version and I doubt whether many potential buyers are swayed by the endorsement of that eight minute piece when the remaining three hours and ten minutes leave so much to be desired.

Ralph Moore 


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