BERLIOZ: Nuits d’ete; RAVEL: Cinq Melodies populaires grecques; Sheherazade – Bernarda Fink, soprano/ German Symphony-Orchestra of Berlin/ Kent Nagano, conductor – Harmonia mundi

by | Jan 3, 2008 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

BERLIOZ: Nuits d’ete; RAVEL: Cinq Melodies populaires grecques; Sheherazade – Bernarda Fink, soprano/ German Symphony-Orchestra of Berlin/ Kent Nagano, conductor – Harmonia mundi HMC 901932, 54:30 ****:

A funny thing happened while listening to this disc. At first I was all aglow, about to give a rave five stars for the impeccable singing and interpretation. But then I started to do some comparing, and as often happens when you turn to recordings you have not heard in a while, the beauties of records past begin percolating in your ears. I will dispense with Ravel’s Five Popular Greek Songs as Fink sings them to perfection, not done better in my experience, and they are but opening salvos on this disc. But when I hear the girlish wispiness of Janet Baker in Sheherezade (with Barbirolli) and the way she shapes the phrase so pleasingly to conform to the exotic and enchanted message of the poetry, I have to admit that Fink in comparison sounds a little prosaic in approach. Hearing “Absence” from Berlioz’s exquisite Nuits d’ete on the recording with Susan Graham and John Nelson, the opening, so languorous and patient, is absent on Fink’s otherwise sterling vocalization.

These two comparisons alone made me realize that I could never consider this a best-ever disc of any kind, seeing as how it is beaten pretty decisively by two others, one more ancient and the other relatively modern. But is this fair? Darn right it is, for any new recording has to compete with the best of the best especially when competing for your hard-earned cash. But does it mean that dismissal is in order? Now that is another question, full of complicated philosophical conundrums. It would be easy to say that if you have either of the comparison recordings that you don’t need this one, and perhaps there is more than a degree of truth to this; on the other hand, if you decided not to purchase this disc based on those assumptions, you will be missing out on some superlative singing by one of the best artists on the current scene. Now, we all have to prioritize our purchases, and it may be that you are not in the market for another Nuits d’ete no matter how good the quality. I understand that and respect it. But if you are like me that means that you must have at least two or three recordings of the very greatest works in the literature, and the Berlioz certainly qualifies.

So is this the greatest? Nope. If you have one of the better ones you don’t need this. But if you have only one and want another, then Fink is certainly your gal, for she sings like an angel, an angel recorded in heavenly sound with a wonderful conductor, and though she is perhaps a mite close up, and not spot-on in interpretative nuance all the way through these pieces, she still has a lot to offer mere mortals like you and me, and Kent Nagano is an old and respected hand in this kind of music. His ability to pull it out of the orchestra—a German one—proves this. And if you are new to this music completely, I can think of no better way to start—you can always obtain Graham and Baker later (and you should do this). So it’s your call, but a “nay” cannot be laid at Bernarda Fink’s door.

— Steven Ritter
 

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