Harty and Monteux conduct BERLIOZ = Beatrice and Benedict Overture; Romeo and Juliet, Op. 17: Reverie and Fete of the Capulets; Queen Mab Scherzo; The Damnation of Faust, Op. 24: Dance of the Sylphs; Hungarian March; Les Troyens: Royal Hunt and Storm; Marche Troyenne; The Corsair – Overture, Op. 21; Funeral March for the Last Scene of Hamlet, Op. 18; Roman Carnival Overture, Op. 9; King Lear – Overture, Op. 4; Les Troyens – Prelude, Act III; Benvenuto Cellini – Overture, Op. 23; Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14 – London Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra, and Halle Orchestra/ Sir Hamilton Harty/ Orchestre Symphonique de Paris/ Pierre Monteux – Pristine Audio PASC 551 (2 CDS) TT: 2:28:25  [www.prisitneclassical.com] *****:

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) has innumerable testaments and documents to his immense talent here, on the 150th anniversary of his death, particularly in the form of the massive set from Warner of his complete works on records on 27 CDS.  Pristine responds with Mark Obert-Thorn’s intensely vivid restoration of recordings by two of the composer’s most fervent acolytes, Sir Hamilton Harty (1879-1941) and Pierre Monteux (1875-1964).  The Harty (rec. 1928-1935) compendium completely refurbishes the 1991 Pearl issue (Gemm CD 9485) that lacked the King Lear Overture we receive in this collection. The 1930 Berlioz recordings by Pierre Monteux have had prior CD incarnation, and here with increased clarity and instrumental definition.

Having recently celebrated the conducting art of Sir Hamilton Harty on “The Music Treasury,” I can certify that Harty’s grasp of the natural Berlioz line and elevation of phrase—derived from studies with Charles Halle—never loses the defined arioso of the vocal line, given the composer’s life-long devotion to song.  Add Harty’s explosive rhythmic sense to the mix, and the effect proves stunning, manic, even hilarious in the rampantly boisterous evocation of the composer’s colors. Harty’s innate capacity to build an effective climax rates second to none, as witnessed in his The Corsair (2 November 1934). The application of Berlioz’s counterpoint in the Capulet’s Ball (5 September 1933) shines in both dramatic and lyric character—made especially poignant by Leon Goossens’ oboe—while Romeo skulks in the bass line. The frenetic pantheism invested into the Royal Hunt and Storm (10 April 1931) lacks only the choral part to complete the sonic revel.  The grinding emotions of the opening of King Lear (LSO, 15-16 October 1935) and the subsequent sense of catastrophe will find a competitor only some ten years later, in the 1945 rendition by the NBC Symphony under Mitropoulos. I assume I am correct in asserting that Harty’s provides the first recording of the Funeral March from Hamlet (18 April 1935), certainly a reading of inspired gravitas.  The Roman Carnival Overture (12 February 1932), a work prone to over-exposure to the popular taste, shucks off anything like routine in an eminently driven, sonically etched interpretation. Given the breadth of Harty’s commitment to the Berlioz ethos, I must regret he did not record for posterity one of the Berlioz truly original conceptions, like Les Francs-Juges Overture, Op. 3, so for that I must turn to Sir Thomas Beecham and Arturo Toscanini.

Portrait Berlioz

Hector Berlioz

Pierre Monteux wastes no time in impressing us with the fervor—derived from studies with Edouard Colonne—with an energized version of the Prelude to Act III of Les Troyens (31 January 1930).  Equally robust and lyrically arched, the Overture to Benvenuto Cellini (30 January 1930) moves fleetly between introspective yearning to the more adventurous, pageant-laden sides of Cellini’s often picaresque personality.  The Symphonie fantastique has had more than several brilliant recorded documents from diverse musicians—I cite Oskar Fried, Bruno Walter, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Igor Markevitch, Charles Munch, Sir Thomas Beecham, Leonard Bernstein, Carlos Paita—to name a distinguished few.  Monteux  brings his own sense of authenticity to the occasion—the first of five recordings over a lifetime—which includes a refined delicacy of effect, besides the usual heaven-storming aspects of the composer’s exploration into his interior life of an artist.

The persistent idee fixe enjoys any number of sonorous permutations even early in the first movement, which presents the beloved’s theme as both immortal blessing and onerous curse. Monteux manipulates the agogic shifts masterfully to capture the “double helix” of the beloved’s devastating effect upon his soul, its Jekyll-and-Hyde power. The Paris Orchestra basses and woodwinds converge to achieve the ultimate sense of mental divisiveness.  The Ball Scene evokes silks and glitter, but the idee fixe serves the function of a classical harpy, ruining life’s feast.  The sounds of Swiss herdsmen illuminate the persona’s communion with Nature in the Country Scene, but the ranz des vaches suffers from the intrusion of self-doubt and fear of betrayal.  The Paris oboe, English horn, flute, strings and four kettledrums collaborate to build one of the most original sound pictures in music. But no less effective, if not absolutely shattering, the March to the Scaffold indulges the composer’s total paranoia and self-loathing, a victim of his fatal passion, for “each man kills the thing he loves.” The bassoons—so important in Beethoven – has found a new voice in a quartet, as the trumpets and timpani, too, advance his soul to its own execution for having murdered his beloved, with pizzicato strings invoking his decapitated head’s bounce in the basket. Finally, the persona’s soul with roast in Hell, here a fiendish round-dance on the Dies Irae, a moment of cosmic betrayal we can find in Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” The Paris Orchestra must command an amazing array of effects, from the raucous clarinet, to booming bells, col legno strings, wind glissandos, and rapid alteration of dynamics, all in the service of a monstrous grotesquerie, where love laughs wickedly at its own, apocalyptic seduction.

Monteux insisted that this 1930 reading remained his favorite; and, if Mark Obert-Thorn’s sound imaging sounds as good to you as it does to me, this performance will haunt your imagination for many fine repeats.

—Gary Lemco

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