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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie Fantastique Op.14a (1830) [52:53]
Le Carnaval Romain Op.9 (1843) [9:45]
Benvenuto Cellini - Overture (1834) [10:36]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Daphnis et Chloé - Suite No.2 (1913) [16:55]
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in G major (1931) [21:47]
La Valse (1919/20) [12:54]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La Mer (1903-5) [24:56]
Nocturnes (1899) [24:13]
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune(1894) [10:00]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (1891-96?) [16:24]
Kindertotenlieder (1901-04) [25:09]
4 Lieder aus “Des knaben Wunderhorn” [22:39]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896) [32:24]
Burleske (1885-6) [19:35]
Martha Argerich (piano - Ravel)
Thomas Quasthoff (bass-baritone - Mahler Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Kindertotenlieder)
Håkan Hagegård (baritone - 4 Lieder aus “Des knaben Wunderhorn”)
Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano - Strauss)
Kölner Rundfunk Sinfonie Orchester/Gary Bertini
rec. 1985-1994
CAPRICCIO 7136 [5 CDs: 73:14 + 51:36 + 59:09 + 64:12 + 51:59]

Experience Classicsonline




This is one of those curious re-packagings that record companies delight in from time to time. All of the five discs here are from the excellent Gary Bertini and the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra and have been available previously as single discs. However, three have also been collected into a set which bears the SA-CD logo - missing on this set. Indeed the single releases seem to be SA-CD as well. Capriccio have simply contained the original discs in a cardboard slip case with no other attempt at adapting the presentation. There is, however, a considerable price advantage in buying the five disc set - the usual online suspects offer the set in the range £13.00-£19.00 whereas the single discs are still at full price and the three disc set is around £25.00. As I do not have a system set up for surround or SA-CD listening I can comment only on the standard stereo format versions in any case. 

Gary Bertini was this orchestra’s principal conductor from 1983 to 1991 and these recordings cover the period 1985 (the Ravel Concerto) to 1994 (The Berlioz Overtures). The covers are labelled “the Cologne Broadcasts” and seem to be a mixture of mainly concert and some studio performances. Clearly the intention is to showcase Bertini’s legacy in Cologne and as such the performances should be considered as examples of his Art rather than versions of the music in question per se. As an interpreter of major standing Bertini swam into my view with his excellent clear-headed cycle of the Mahler Symphonies on EMI with the same orchestra. These remain in the catalogue as both an excellent (sub £20.00) bargain and a compelling, idiosyncrasy-free traversal of those works. Again the Mahler cycle is mainly taken from live performances and the date range is almost identical: 1984-1991. Collectors who know and enjoy that set will hear many of the same performing and interpretative values at work throughout this set. As an aside - this is also much the same time this orchestra were recording Barshai’s lauded Shostakovich cycle (1992-1998). Unfussy and with a clear control of balance and structure is how I would simply characterise Bertini’s approach. My one sorrow is the rather arbitrary selection of repertoire. One assumes that German Radio must have a very substantial archive of Bertini/Cologne recordings. That being the case I am sorry they chose not to showcase a wider range of music rather than three French and two German discs with a disc each for Debussy and Ravel. A few final collective observations before moving onto the individual discs. The radio provenance of the recordings means the discs are well if not spectacularly engineered. In the main the sound is appealingly naturally balanced although there is occasional solo spotlighting. The live performances have very occasional - but not disruptive - audience noise and regardless of location there is no applause. Liner-notes are supplied with each disc in its jewel case in German and English and are perfunctory to say the least - brief notes regarding the disc’s music and the same information about the orchestra and conductor each time.
 
I will comment on each disc in the order it is presented in the box. First up is the Berlioz disc. The Symphonie Fantastique receives a performance that gains in momentum and impact as it moves on. It is not listed as a live performance but curiously there are some moments of scrappy ensemble which should have been rectified if it is not. Sometimes the long central Scène aux Champs can become rather becalmed but Bertini is especially good here with the menacing - and revolutionary - timpani writing foreshadowing the drama to come later in the work. If there is one composition more than any other for me that benefits from the application of authentic performance practice and instruments it is this. For all the energy Bertini gives it the piece has a veneer of sophistication that reduces the extraordinary leap forward in orchestral technique it represents. I miss the vulgar bass trombone and parping bassoons. One aspect that does become immediately apparent across the set is the consistent ‘personality’ of certain of the orchestra’s players. Here, in this work, the unusually plangent tone of the principal clarinet is ideal for the March to the Scaffold or Witch’s Sabbath. The Cologne brass is excellent throughout if lacking the last degree of heraldic brazen splendour that the LSO gave Colin Davis in his famous Berlioz recordings on Philips in the 1960s. All in all a very good and rather central interpretation. Much the same could be said of the Overtures - very neatly played when required but without the last dash of early-Romantic wildness that marks the music down as exceptional.
 
The Ravel disc contains two of the highlights of the set and one disappointment. In the second suite from Daphnis et Chloé and the Piano Concerto in G major - which features the set’s biggest name in Martha Argerich - Bertini’s forensic ear for detail and balance pays substantial dividends. The ballet suite is excellent with a glorious sunrise and muscular closing Danse générale. Two things here for the non-Bertini acolyte to consider though; the recording is good without being viscerally exciting in the way it can be and also this is the orchestra-only version. I do miss the chorus. For the general collector this might well rule out this version. The entire disc is labelled as containing live performances albeit from three different years. Argerich gives an energetically clean account of the concerto which emphasises the neo-classical elements of the score more than the jazz-inflections that others find. This cool rather objective approach chimes wholly with Bertini’s accompaniment and as such makes for a very convincing interpretation. The Cologne Radio recording gives the soloist an effective balance with just enough prominence for the piano writing to register easily but at the same making the interactions with solo lines within the orchestra coherent and believable. The relative ‘miss’ on this disc is La Valse where Bertini’s careful control is just, well too controlled. I miss the delirium and sensual abandon of the finest performances - for once Bertini’s approach seems to run contrary to the essence of the work.
 
That same emotionally distanced, almost calculating style produces the performances of the set on the next disc of Debussy. With powerfully dynamic and compellingly thrustful momentum this is one of the most exciting and convincingly impressive versions of La Mer I know. It is subject to some discreet spotlighting by the engineers but it allows Debussy's endlessly subtle orchestration to shine. Harps and percussion glint like sunlight on wave crests quite beautifully. My only minor carp is that Bertini does not restore the little brass fanfares removed in the published score. The rest of the disc is made up of predictable companions. An excellent Nocturnes again benefits from Bertini's refusal to indulge or linger on detail for detail's sake. Nuages is the study in greys that it is surely meant to be while Fêtes builds to a marvellously swaggering climax. The sorrow with this disc is a disappointingly matter of fact Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Here the element of emotional detachment which pays such dividends in the in-human world of La Mer makes Bertini’s faune a singularly unsensual creature. Again the performances are all from different live concerts. Part of the interest in a set such as this is to find common threads across disparate repertoire and certainly on the evidence as presented Bertini is not one to indulge himself in any kind of emotional or musical excess.
 
The fourth disc was my main reason for requesting the set to review. Containing as it does two complete song cycles and excerpts from a third this is very much an appendix to Bertini’s Mahler cycle. Black marks to Capriccio for supplying no texts and a rather confusing liner written as though this was the piano accompaniment version. The two singers are major artists with bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff singing the two complete cycles. It is interesting that Quasthoff’s presence encourages Bertini to a more overtly expressive style. Perhaps the voice is a fraction forward in the mix masking all of the subtleties of Mahler’s writing. I did wonder if Quasthoff could have risked singing with a wider dynamic range. He is excellent at pointing the text and has a pleasingly robust character which suits the rustic naïveté of the songs. The dark timbres of his bass-orientated voice give the songs a power missing when sung by - literally - higher voices. If I prefer a man’s voice in the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen I find a woman’s voice singing Kindertotenlieder to have extra emotional heft - especially when the part is taken by Christa Ludwig or Janet Baker. That being said Bertini is excellent at finding a traumatised weight and lumbering despair that gives the closing In diesem Wetter a quite different character from Karajan’s version with Ludwig. Both interpretations succeed but here I find Bertini more emotionally engaging - with the consolation of the epilogue most movingly achieved. Håkan Hagegård has a suitably lighter and bluffer approach which is wholly in tune with the less troubled spirit of the four Das Knaben Wunderhorn songs. Certainly, if collectors have found their way to this disc because of enjoyment taken with Bertini’s Mahler symphony cycle they need not hesitate since this does provide an excellent and possibly indispensable addition to that set. 
 
The fifth and final disc contains the one major disappointment of the box. This is a very routine Also Sprach Zarathustra which never quite recovers from a murky sunrise with muddied timpani, less than glorious brass and an organ chord that sideslips fractionally away from the orchestra’s tuning. According to the liner this performance is a composite of two different performances in two different halls three days apart. To be fair, one is not aware of any acoustic shift but conversely the inner detail of Strauss’ complex writing eludes the German Radio engineers. Often the harp is all but absent and then curiously when the solo violin is joined by their desk partner, the leader is clearly audible and the second - brief - solo line completely obscured. Also, the clarinet whose distinctive tone added much to Berlioz sounds rather coarse here. Indeed, driven and unsympathetic would be my brief assessment of the performance. Over the work as a whole matters improve but Bertini misses the benevolence of sections such as Das Tanzlied where it is simply forced rather than having any smiling beauty. There are pleasures to be taken but not a performance to add to one’s knowledge of the piece or the performer on the rostrum. The Burleske starts somewhat inauspiciously too. The very opening timpani solo is unsatisfactorily woolly and more damagingly the first flourish from pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja implies a discontent with Bertini’s set tempo as she pushes ahead of the accompaniment. Fortunately things settle down very quickly and this proves to be a far more enjoyable performance than the preceding tone-poem. Burleske has always felt like a peripheral work in the Strauss canon - which it probably is - but Leonskaja plays it as though a major Romantic concertante work. By the end you believe it too - certainly in her hands it seems significantly more substantial. Perhaps goaded or persuaded by Leonskaja’s barnstorming approach Bertini gives a more overtly expressive performance than the contents of the other discs would suggest was his norm. Indeed, it is the kind of interpretation that makes one reconsider the ‘worth’ of the work - an impressive end to the set.
 
So how to assess the box as a whole; well probably something of a mixed bag if truth be told. For the Debussy and Mahler I would happily return, for the Ravel they are performances I enjoyed hearing but possibly not to replace existing library favourites. The remaining Berlioz and Strauss are perfectly good without demanding attention except for a less-than-important Burleske. However, at the very reasonable price point collectors might well argue that the La Mer and Mahler cycles merit the cost of the whole set with the other repertoire “thrown in”. My admiration for Bertini is undimmed but I do wish the range of repertoire offered had been wider and more challenging especially since the discs are compilations of different concerts and they are not exactly over-filled.
 
Nick Barnard

Masterwork Index: Also Sprach Zarathustra ~~ La Mer ~~ Symphonie Fantastique

see also review of individual disc releases: Berlioz by Tim Perry ~~ Debussy by Michael Greenhalgh

Track Listing and Performance Details
rec. Köln Philharmonie Germany: 30 November 1987 (Prélude à l'après-midi); 3 September 1988 (Nocturnes and La Valse); 4 March 1989 (Strauss Burleske); 11 November 1989 (Daphnis); 15-17 June 1992 (Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen); 18-21 January 1993 (4 Lieder aus “Des knaben Wunderhorn”); 22-23 January 1993 (Kindertotenlieder) 4-8 May 1993 (Berlioz Symphonie); 6 November 1993 (La Mer); 24-25 March 1994 (Berlioz Overtures); Leverkusen Germany:18 November 1988 and Antwerp Belgium 21 November 1988 (Also Sprach Zarathustra); Gürzenich Köln Germany: 7 December 1985 (Ravel concerto)

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