Monday 14 July 2014

Berlioz Herminie and La mort de Cleopatre

Berlioz Herminie, La mort de Cleopatre; Lisa Larsson, Het Gelders Orkest, Antonello Manacorda; Challenge Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 07 2014
Star rating: 3.0

Two of Berlioz's Prix de Rome cantatas in performances in performances which don't quite make their mark in a crowded marked

Berlioz had three goes at winning the Prix de Rome (in 1827, 1828 and 1829) before finally winning in 1830. His winning work, La more de Saranapale is highly conventional, and it is the works which didn't win which hold out interest to us today. La mort de Cleopatre (from 1829) presages the final scenes of Dido's death in Berlioz's opera Les Troyens, and gives us a tempting might have been in his abandoned operatic project on Anthony and Cleopatra. Herminie (1828) has the fascination of using as its musical material the idee fixe which Berlioz re-used in his Symphonie Fantastique. The judges might not have been impressed with Berlioz's attempts - when taxed with writing music that wasn't peaceful Berlioz retorted 'Monsieur, it is rather difficult to write peaceful music for an Egyptian queen who has been bitten by a poisonous snake and who is suffering a painful death in extremes of agony' - but there is much for the modern listener.

This new disc on Challenge Classics from Swedish soprano Lisa Larsson, and Het Gelders Orkest under their principal conductor Antonello Manacorda, pairs Herminie with La mort de Cleopatre along with Berlioz's song La Captive.

The text for Herminie is based on Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, the Princess Erminia (Hermine) is in love with Tancredi and she goes to his aid dressed in male armour. It is a sequence of recit and aria, finishing with a prayer. From the opening notes of the initial recitative, we are plunged into the sound world of the Symphony Fantastiques. This flexible recitative is followed by a pair of dramatic arias, vividly impetuous and following the dramatic impetus of the text in fine fashion, separated by further dramatic recitative. The last aria is almost Trojan-esque in its sound-world, whilst the concluding prayer is vividly Berlioz.

La Captive (setting a poem by Victor Hugo) started out as a simple strophic song from 1832, but later he developed it into a through-composed piece. It is a quieter more intense piece, and rather lovely.

La mort de Cleopatre opens with a wonderfully dramatic recitative and even the following Lento cantabile section has a recitative like freedom. The Meditation is highly atmospheric again with hints of The Trojans. The final section is highly intense and makes one regret that Berlioz did not develop his fascination with Cleopatra further.

Lisa Larsson has an attractive lyric soprano voice and in the quieter pieces such as La Captive is capable of moments of great beauty and intense sympathy, and her bleached out tones at the death of Cleopatre are marvellous. But, despite singing with nice flexibility, there is the sense that her voice lacks the amplitude to really ride orchestra and at peak moments I find her performance sounds a little too pressured with not enough fire power to sustain the line over the orchestra.

The orchestral playing from Het Gelders Orkest (the Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra) under Antonello Manacorda offers some fine moments and a nice sophisticated feel for Berlioz's writing. But there is quite a choice in this repertoire, with singers as varied as Veronique Gens, Francoise Pollet, Janet Baker and Rosalind Plowright.

Hector Berlioz (1803 - 1869) - Herminie (1828)
Hector Berlioz (1803 - 1869) - La Captive (1832)
Hector Berlioz (1803 - 1869) - La more de Cleopatre (1829)
Lisa Larsson (soprano)
Het Gelders Orkest
Antonello Manacorda (conductor)
Recorded  18-20 June 2013, Musis Sacrum, Arnhem, The Netherlands
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