BERLIOZ: Romeo et Juliette–Dramatic Symphony; Les Nuits d’ete – Jessye Norman, soprano/John Aler, tenor/Simon Estes, bass/The Westminster Choir/Philadelphia Orch./Riccardo Muti/Janet Baker, mezzo/New Philharmonia Orch,/Sir John Barbirolli – EMI Classics

by | Nov 28, 2008 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

BERLIOZ: Romeo et Juliette–Dramatic Symphony, Op. 17; Les Nuits d’ete – Jessye Norman, soprano/John Aler, tenor/Simon Estes, bass/The Westminster Choir/Philadelphia Orchestra/Riccardo Muti /Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano/New Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli

EMI Classics 2 17640 2  (2-CDs),  59:40; 67:41 ****:

Originally recorded in 1967 (Nuits d’ete) and 1986, these fine performances grace the Berlioz catalogue both with intelligence and ardent, stylistic devotion. Arturo Toscanini had already revealed the beauteous mysteries of the Romeo and Juliet Symphony on records, and Pierre Monteux and Charles Munch had followed suit. Dimitri Mitropoulos made a splendid record (ML 4632) for CBS of the complete orchestral score. Much of the emotional tenor of Berlioz’ score resists the actual developments of Shakespeare’s play–no mention of the parents, the Nurse, the Prince, the suitor Paris–but the passionate score anticipates Wagner’s Tristan spiritually and musically, the leitmotifs for Wagner’s Act II love music having been derived verbatim from the figures by the French genius.

We say hats off to Riccardo Muti’s direction for having maintained the sonic lushness that Stokowski might have imparted to this score via the Philadelphia Orchestra had he championed it as he did the Fantastic Symphony. Muti’s tempos are generally fast in the Toscanini mold. Jessye Norman’s strophes shimmer with tender sorrow, the agonies of which Berlioz’ love-scene will culminate majestically. John Aler proffers a deft scherzo in the Mercutio narrative on the power of Queen Mab to tumble lovers’ reason. Muti’s Queen Mab Scherzo exploits the swift, diaphanous prowess of the Philadelphia strings, winds, French horns and tympani–often in imitation of an exalted fox hunt–though here the berries still fall to Toscanini and Mitropoulos.

Haunted choral intonation for Juliet’s funeral procession, a requiem, pre-Moussorgsky; the dark, even serpentine, orchestral tissue evolves with a lucidity we attribute to the baton of Giulini. More expressionistic harmonies torment Romeo’s visit to Juliet’s tomb, with the Philadelphia string bass section in throbbing figures for the Invocation episode that leads to the weird clarinet recitative in Juliet’s reverie. The final agonies and death-throes of the lovers has the string and wind section jabbing each other between knife wounds and apothecary’s poison. Simon Estes reigns as Friar Laurence, trying to dispel the revived antagonism between the warring houses Capulet and Montague. His impassioned plea–a musical hosanna–for reconciliation might well serve as a benison to our contemporary, global politics.

The Berlioz 1840 setting of six poems by Theophile Gautier capture the sensibility of unrequited love with a Symbolist’s sense of orchestral color and gothic harmony. If Eleanor Steber brought an American’s fervor for this song-cycle to fruition, then Janet Baker epitomizes the British effort, her dusky French sailing through the Villanelle with the same angular coquetry as the accompanying bassoon. Barbirolli is no less in his Gallic element for Le Spectre de la Rose and Sur les lagunes, his flutes and violas in passionately hazy, musical synchronicity. In her high, floated notes, Baker several times recalls the tone-color of colleague Kathleen Ferrier. The third and sixth songs reflect the state of Berlioz’ disintegrating marriage to Harriet Smithson, his actress-wife who had embodied the Juliet of his dreams. The falling figures enter a cavern traversed by Tristan in Act III and by Mahler throughout his life. The final song, The Unknown Isle, proceeds like a barcarolle, hinting at fairer hopes but unsure whether this newly-sighted haven offers merely a fool’s paradise.

–Gary Lemco

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