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
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
the early slow music is associated with
the character of Béatrice
and 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.
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.