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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Overtures:
Le Corsaire, Op. 21 (1844) [8:03]
Overture to Béatrice et Bénédict (1862) [7:58]
Overture to Les Francs-juges, Op. 3 (1826) [11:47]
Le Carnaval romain, Op. 9. Ouverture caractéristique (1844) [8:25]
Waverley, Op. 1. Grande ouverture. (1827-28) [9:53]
Le Roi Lear, Op. 4. Grande ouverture. (1831)
Overture to Benvenuto Cellini Op. 23 (1838) [10:34]
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. 11-14 June 2012, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway.
CHANDOS CHSA 5118 SACD [72:52]

The Bergen Philharmonic here continue their fruitful relationship with Chandos, appearing for the first time on disc, I think, with Sir Andrew Davis. Of course, when we combine the names Davis and Berlioz in the same sentence we’re normally referring to Sir Colin Davis, doyen of Berlioz conductors, though on this evidence Sir Andrew also has much to offer as a Berlioz interpreter. By coincidence, a few years ago I reviewed an identical compendium of Berlioz overtures conducted by Sir Colin Davis. This was a 1997 collection in which he conducted the Staatskapelle Dresden.
 
Sir Andrew Davis gets his programme off to an excellent start with a mainly swashbuckling account of Le Corsaire. The Bergen Philharmonic plays the energetic music in this piece with brio yet they are encouraged by Davis to display sensitivity in the slower music that occurs soon after the start - as Hugh Macdonald justly observes in his notes, this was something of a structural trademark in Berlioz’s overtures.
 
In the brilliant overture to Béatriceet Bénédict the early slow music is associated with the character of Béatriceand Davis displays excellent feeling in the way he handles this episode. The playful, quicker music has gaiety and freshness, the Bergen players distinguishing themselves once more. I don’t feel that Sir Andrew’s performance is bettered by Sir Colin Davis’s equally exhilarating account.
 
Where Sir Colin does have the edge, I think, is in Les Francs-juges. There’s much to admire in the Bergen performance, where the dark, suspenseful atmosphere at the start is well captured, but I think there’s more of a baleful ambience in Dresden, thanks especially to the marvellously sonorous Dresden brass section. Writing of Sir Colin’s recording in 2005 I singled out “the extraordinary passage where a long, troubled and troubling wind melody is quietly and distantly sounded, accompanied at first by agitated strings underneath. Subsequently, threatening percussion underpins the melody. Davis balances all this perfectly and as a result the atmosphere of chilling menace is conveyed just as Berlioz surely intended it.” Heard against the new recording, my view is confirmed. The Bergen version (5:38-7:28) is excellent but you get even more in Dresden. Two details, typical of the composer’s imaginative orchestration, stand out for me. Early on in this episode the strings have phrases that cut across the wind lines. They’re more jagged, and therefore more telling, in Dresden. Near the end of this passage (at 7:09 in Bergen) the timpani play in a completely different rhythm to - and across - the rest of the band. That comes over well in both recordings but at the same time unique atmosphere is contributed by dull, sinister thuds on the bass drum. Quiet as they are you can hear them quite clearly on the Dresden recording and it’s marvellous: they’re virtually inaudible in Bergen. On such fine margins …
 
However, that is the only overture in which I would express a clear preference for one conductor over the other. Sir Andrew’s account of Le Carnaval romain is excellent. The memorable cor anglais solo near the start is nicely paced - Sir Colin is a bit more specious and I have a slight preference for his rival in this episode - and then the Bergen reading catches the colourful brilliance of the carnival itself in a dashing display - there’s brightness and energy in Dresden too. 

Benvenuto Cellini
is another conspicuous success in both collections. Once again the lyrical music is very winningly done in Bergen while there’s all the sweep and brilliance you could wish for later on in the overture - when the faster music resumes at 4:05 there’s a real fizz to the performance: the flashing Bergen woodwinds lay down the gauntlet to their string colleagues who take it up gleefully.
 
With the exception of Les Francs-juges - and even here the differences are not massive - I wouldn’t care to express a preference for one of these two fine collections over the other. For Chandos Sir Andrew Davis conducts these colourful and inventive scores with panache and he secures colourful, rhythmically precise performances from the Norwegian orchestra which plays with zest throughout the programme. The Chandos recording is up to the usual high standards of the house - I listened to this hybrid SACD as a CD - and Hugh Macdonald’s succinct notes are ideal. If you’re looking for a set of Berlioz overtures - a highly desirable addition to any collection - then this disc has very strong claims on your attention.
 
John Quinn



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