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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869) Overtures:-
Le Corsaire [8:03]
Béatrice et Bénédict [7:58]
Les Francs-juges [11:47]
Le Carnaval romain [8:25]
Waverley [9:53]
Le Roi Lear [15:20]
Benvenuto Cellini [10:34]
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. Grieghallen, Bergen, 11-14 June 2012

I wasn’t overly impressed with the Bergen Philharmonic when I went to hear them in Edinburgh last February, but this Berlioz disc is a winner. Andrew Davis brings out the best in them, and they provide a collection of Berlioz overtures that can stand comparison with any in the catalogue, even the - previously unrivalled - collections from the late Sir Colin Davis.
Their Le Corsaire buckles every imaginable swash, and the fleck of the sea spray comes through with exhilaration in the faster music, with a beautiful account of the more reflective passages too. To go from this to the filigree world of Béatrice et Bénédict is quite a surprise, but a very effective one. Coming straight from Le Corsaire the opening sounded a little heavy to me, but it soon cast off any extra burdens and I loved the sense of to-and-fro questioning between the different parts, especially the winds, which gave the piece a lovely feeling of transparency. Francs-juges has a dark, brooding quality that becomes almost elemental when the main allegro kicks in. The Bergen strings manage to darken their tone in dramatic contrast to their lightness of mood in the previous tracks. It also reminds the listener of what a daring work this was - one of the young composer’s first orchestral compositions - with its frequent, daring, thrillingly undisciplined experimentations in both orchestration and harmony.
One of the reasons the disc works so well as an album is because of the order of the tracks. I alluded to this above, but the works are curated so as to provide a good measure of contrast. You get the same when you move from the dark mysteries of Les Francs-juges into the dazzling sunlight of the opening flourish of Le Carnaval Romain. This then subsides into a sumptuous account of the cor anglais solo, which would rival any on disc, taken up by winning strings which then build up to an account of the carnival music itself which is exhilarating without being quite in the same top drawer as, say, Davis or Munch’s great versions.
I especially loved their treatment of Waverley. It may be a technically weaker work than those around it, but the Bergeners play it with such a sense of fun that its inherent tunefulness blazes forth unashamedly. Davis is also very good at bringing out the light and shade in the textures so as to keep things moving without drawing attention to the sometimes clumsy harmonic structure.
The introduction to Roi Lear is perhaps the most impressive thing on the disc. It broods without sounding self-indulgent and carries a tragic sense of grandeur that is then transformed into the invigorating rush of the allegro. The themes given to the solo oboe, so important in this overture, are played delectably and the coda carries plenty of drama and sweep. The same is true of the main allegro of Benvenuto Cellini, which positively sparkles with all the pizzazz of its subject and location.
Thebeautifully atmospheric recorded sound is another boon, as are the booklet notes which are up to Chandos’ usually impeccable standard. In short, a winner!
Simon Thompson

see also review by John Quinn