The music of Hector Berlioz has been of special interest to Sir Colin Davis throughout his distinguished career. Since the passing of Charles Munch, the mantle of preeminent Berlioz conductor has by general assent been draped onto Sir Colin's shoulders. In the 1970's Philips issued a "Colin Davis Berlioz Cycle" that included, in addition to the composer's generally recognized major works, the previously obscure operas Benvenuto Cellini and Les Troyens. Those proved to be important additions to the Berlioz legacy, illuminating for contemporary music lover's new dimensions of the composer's brilliant imagination and compositional skills.
The two CDs discussed here are part of the LSO Live label's "Berlioz Odyssey," honoring the bicentenary of the composer's birth. The project also comprises Romeo and Juliet, The Damnation of Faust, Beatrice and Benedict and Les Troyens. The performances have received numerous Gramophone and other awards, and Les Troyens received the 2002 Grammy awards for Best Classical and Best Opera recording. All six releases are available also in a 12-CD boxed set.
Doing It Right
Contrary to my usual practice in music reviews -- music first, then the sound -- I will lead this time with the outstanding sound and production quality of these CDs. The sound is awesome, dude. There is none of the "digital" glare or edge heard on too many silver discs - the strings are warm and rich, and obviously not made of steel; brass rings out with the requisite "bite" but no leading edge transient distortion. Dynamics and low-level detail are flawlessly powerful or delicate as the music dictates. What especially separates them from almost any orchestral CDs I can think of is the very close-up and detailed perspective (Sir Colin's occasional hums and soft moans are easily heard, and to this listener rather endearing) in combination with substantial depth and "layering" in the presentation of the musicians. I find the results heart-pumping and completely captivating. The closest parallel to the lush clarity of the LSO Live CD sound is Keith Johnson's fabulous engineering for Reference Recordings -- high praise indeed.
My initial near incredulity at the gorgeous sound subsided somewhat when, poring through the fine print technical credits, I found the names of veteran producer James Mallison and recording engineer Tony Faulkner. Faulkner is a
master — no, make that an artist — of the microphone and console, who has made countless beautiful recordings that belie commonplace assumptions (my own certainly included) about the deficiencies of digital
vs. analogue recording technology.
A small voice-perhaps just a figment of my imagination - keeps whispering, "What about SACD"? Since a DSD master can produce SACD playback discs, and since hybrid dual-layer CD/SACD releases are fairly commonplace these days, I am slightly surprised to find LSO Live issuing only regular CDs. I am not complaining since I have, in several instances, found the CD layer of a hybrid disc sonically inferior to a single-layer CD of the same recording. But having witnessed the record industry's propensity to market and remarket the same product dressed in shiny new formats, I can't help wondering if we should be anticipating SACD reissues of these same releases a year or two down the road. (I must emphasize that I am speculating here, not accusing.)
OK, back to the positive. There is virtually no audible evidence that these are in-concert performances, except for a slight anticipatory rustling between movements. Either the British are the most polite and self-disciplined audiences in the world, digital editing is now so precise that noise-eliminating edits cannot be detected, or both. I hear nary a cough, sneeze, dropped program or (G-d forbid) beeper while music is playing. What's more, there is no eruption of applause and shouts at the end -- only blissful silence. No scrambling for the MUTE on the remote or leaping across the room to turn down the volume; you can simply sit back and savor the beauty of what you have just heard. I commend these CDs as the paradigm that any company issuing in-concert recordings should emulate.
This orchestral warhorse is unquestionably Berlioz's most-played composition, and a perennial audio demonstration favorite (at least the two final movements). Browsing my LP and CD shelves I find I have accumulated some 14 recordings of it. But for this review I will compare the Davis/LSO CD to what I regard as the gold standard fantastique: the 1962 RCA Living Stereo recording by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, for which I have both an original LP and an excellent remastered XRCD2 reissue.
Some prestigious audiophile surveys rank the 1957 recording by the same forces higher, but I've never quite understood why. Certainly it is very good (noticeably more restrained - perhaps that's it). But in my opinion the '62 presents Munch at his most charismatic, unbridled and passionate, inspiring the BSO to one of the greatest exhibitions of orchestral brilliance ever recorded. I also find the 1962 sound more dynamic and exciting, if perhaps somewhat less pristine, than the very early stereo of 1957.
In the opening movement, "Reveries - Passions," one can perceive the different designs of these two Berlioz masters. Although their respective timings are within seconds of each other, they establish quite different moods. While drawing exquisite playing from his Bostonians, Munch phrases more tautly, with fewer tempo adjustments, than Davis. Munch seems more interested in the passions that the reveries; there is a subtle restlessness in his reading. Conversely, Davis evokes a "dreamier," almost impressionistic mood.
In the second movement, "A Ball," Davis is one of the few conductors to add the optional cornet part in the latter half. Whether or not one likes that change - I do - it is at the least an interesting variant on the standard orchestration. Interpretively, Munch's febrile intensity is again in contrast to Davis' more relaxed phrasing.
In the third movement, "Scenes n the Country," Davis seems to relish Berlioz's languid phrases. He clocks in at 2:14 longer than Munch, who seems at times to be striding rather than ambling through the countryside. Here especially I feel that Munch, whether purposely or instinctively, treats the entire work as pointing inexorably toward the climactic final movements.
Davis's "March to the Scaffold" takes 7:01 vs. Munch's 4:28. Here again Davis adopts a statelier pace, but the timing difference relates primarily to Davis observing the repeat. Munch of course drives implacably toward the hero's fate. I generally like hearing repeats in symphonic scores, but in this instance I feel that Munch dramatizes the intent of the music more effectively.
In the crowning "Dream of a Witches' Sabbath," Davis elucidates the complex scoring and rhythms, and the LSO play like angels. But the mood strikes me as more like a "Seminar on a Witches' Sabbath." Munch gives us unbridled passionate delirium, and the BSO play like devils, with stunning ferocity and superhuman virtuosity. Hors de concours!
In the CD format, somewhat to my surprise the LSO Live sound surpasses that of its senior by 40 years - although the XRCD2 reissue of the Boston performance is superb in its own right. Despite showing a bit of wear, my RCA Red Seal LP still offers that special analog warmth and seductiveness. But let's face it, if you find one in good condition -- increasingly less likely -- you will almost certainly be paying a premium for it.
I recommend Davis as a valuable alternative presentation of this music. In the first and third movements, I slightly prefer Davis's more subtly shaded interpretations. In the second movement, Davis's inclusion of the cornet parts is most welcome. Even in the final two movements, where Munch reigns supreme, the fabulous sound, gorgeous orchestral playing, and Davis's loving exploitation of the score's myriad details all are good reasons for owning this CD.
Harold In Italy
Loosely based on Byron's epic poem Childe Harold, this "symphony with viola" could be thought of as Berlioz's "pastoral/picaresque" symphony. It does not seem to be terribly popular with orchestra programmers these days. With its wealth of good tunes and easily manageable length, it deserves better.
You may know the story surrounding the piece: The great violin virtuoso Paganini, having acquired a magnificent Stradivarius viola, asked Berlioz to write a viola concerto for him. Ever the maverick, the composer conceived a work with a prominent viola part but not a showy solo concerto, which Paganini rejected. A year later, after hearing Berlioz conduct the premier of Harold, Paganini wrote an effusive apology and bestowed a munificent gift that supported the composer while he was writing Romeo and Juliet.
Having only a half-dozen prior Harolds on hand, I settled on the 1975 Philips LP by the younger, as yet un-knighted Colin Davis, also leading the LSO. Sonically, there is no contest; the brilliant-sounding new CD obliterates the fair-to-middling mid-'70s Philips sound. Also, while violist Nobuko Imai is very good for Colin in 1975, Sir Colin's Tabea Zimmerman, aided by the magnificent recording, delivers a most dramatically satisfying and tonally resplendent account of the viola part.
From one movement to the next, Sir Colin's conception of the score is weightier, somehow "darker" feeling, and more expansively phrased and paced than that of young Colin, who summons up a more impetuous Harold. Both approaches work well, at least most of the time.
Sir Colin's interpretation is especially effective in the two inner movements. The solemn beauty of "The March of the Pilgrims" is breathtaking. Zimmerman's playing and her startlingly deep, rich-toned, gorgeously recorded viola - in the closing moments is revelatory in its weight and sheer beauty. The third movement "Serenade" also gains from Sir Colin's spot-on tenderness and then liveliness in the two big tunes.
But, similarly to the finale of the Symphonie fantastique, Sir Colin is just too buttoned-up in the last movement. It may be titled "Orgy of the Brigands," but it sounds as if the invitations to this orgy specified black-tie! I see what the conductor is getting at; both tempo and volume increase as the movement progresses. But here the impetuous vigor of young Colin is far more appropriate. (If you want to hear some real hell raising, take a listen to Toscanini. Yes, it's dryish mono, but it rocks!)
Both of these CDs have enjoyable fillers excerpted from other releases. The fantastique is followed by the Overture to Beatrice and Benedict. The weighty, somber reading makes the work sound to me like the Germanic romanticism of Weber, whereas in Davis's earlier studio recording it seemed to point to Rossini. Interesting. Harold is followed by ballet music from Les Troyens; the music and performance are just lovely.
With the reservations noted throughout, I highly recommend both of these LSO Live CDs for Sir Colin's many illuminating insights into these scores, the magnificent orchestral playing, and the extraordinarily vivid recorded sound.