Sunday 27 January 2019

A powerful journey: Sir Colin Davis complete live Berlioz recordings on LSO Live

Berlioz Odyssey - Sir Colin Davis & LSO
Berlioz Odyssey; Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra; LSO Live Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 January 2019
A remarkable testament, all of Colin Davis' live Berlioz recordings with the LSO

The title on the cover of this boxed set is Berlioz Odyssey, and it is very much an odyssey as it takes in all the live Berlioz recordings that Sir Colin Davis made with the London Symphony Orchestra, from Béatrice et Bénédict recorded at the Barbican in June 2000 to the Grande Messe de morts recorded at St Paul's Cathedral (the only work not recorded in the Barbican) in November 2012. In between we have Symphonie Fantastique, Roméo et Juliette, La damnation de Faust, Les TroyensHarold en Italie, Benvenuto Cellini, L'enfance du Christ, and the Te Deum. In all 16 discs.

And part of the set's appeal is the sense that this was very much a journey, for conductor and orchestra. Davis had recorded much of the repertoire before, but this was a chance to revisit with his own orchestra. In fact the journey started before the recordings captured the performances, and I remember attending a very fine performance of Benvenuto Cellini with Giuseppe Sabbatini in the title role in 1998 or 1999. Unfortunately this was not captured for posterity, though there is a chance to hear Sabbatini in very stylish form as Faust in La damnation de Faust, the tessitura of the role offering him no problems, and supported by a strong cast with Enkelejda Shkosa as Marguerite and Michele Bertusi as Mephistopheles.

Sir Colin Davis & the London Symphony Orchestra in 2011
Sir Colin Davis & the London Symphony Orchestra in 2011
When Davis was talking about his performances of Les Troyens in 2000, he said that he wanted to return to the opera but then allow younger conductors the chance to shine during the 2003 centenary celebrations. Thankfully, he was not as good as his word and continued conducting Berlioz (including returning to Les Troyens again) right through to the year before his death when he conducted the stupendous performance of the Grande Messe de morts in St Paul's Cathedral to opening the City of London Festival.

The requiem apart, everything in this set was recorded by Davis and the orchestra live in the Barbican Hall. This is not always an ideal space for audiences to listen to large scale pieces, particularly the choral ones, but the sound on the discs is very vivid and vibrant, giving a sense of the live occasion and perhaps slightly improving upon it.

The 16 discs in the set very much capture a journey, an odyssey, rarely can one conductor and orchestra have had the chance to explore Berlioz' music in so much detail. The big advantage that this set has is the superb consistency and style that Davis and the LSO bring to the music. By the time of the first recording he had been chief conductor for five years and had a long association with the ensemble prior to that. They respond well, and this brings a lovely freedom and consistency to the orchestral sound, along with a great richness of tone. Davis' approach to Berlioz does not seem to have changed significantly, though I am sure details altered over time, he took no interest in historically informed approaches and gives us a thoroughly vibrant, large-scale 20th century orchestral sound. But it works because of his immense sympathy for the composer, and many of these recordings draw you in.

About the vocal soloists, I have more mixed feelings and did so even when attending the live performances.
The casting is very much done from the international pool of singers. Take Roméo e Juliette, where the soloists are Olga Borodina, Kenneth Tarver and Evgeny Nikitin. All three admirable in their way, but not all of them have the sort of feel for the French language that this music needs. That is the set's weakness, whereas the Warner Classics Berlioz box set uses John Nelson's recording of Les Troyens (with a Franco-phone cast plus Joyce DiDonato and Michael Spyres), here we have Ben Heppner on strong form as Énée (Canadian), Michelle de Young as a striking Didon (American), Petra Lang as a powerful Cassandre (German), Sara Mingardo as Anna (Italian) and Peter Mattei as Chorèbe (Swedish). All sing French creditably, but not necessarily as idiomatically as I would want. And this is very much large-scale voice casting, if Davis was using large orchestral forces then he was using big voices to go with them. What makes the performance work is Davis' singular vision of the piece, and his handling of all the diverse details which go into this Shakespearian masterpiece. I have three accounts of Les Troyens conducted by Davis, this one, his earlier recording on Phillips and a live recording from Covent Garden and I would not want to be without any of them.

Béatrice et Bénédict features Enkelejda Shkosa and Kenneth Tarver in the title roles, with Susan Gritton as Héro, Sara Mingardo as Ursule and Laurent Naouri as Claudio, in a performance which has some fine individual items but which does not quite hang together as drama, but perhaps the lack of spoken dialogue counts, and the fact that at the live performances the dialogue was delivered by actors. What comes over in Benvenuto Cellini is Davis' commitment to the work itself, he believes in this problematic piece as drama and Davis gives us a version of the opera which goes back to Berlioz' original conceptions rather than his later and rather damaging revisions. Gregory Kunde makes a strong Cellini, sweeping away the technical demands of the role, robust rather than ingratiatingly beautiful, complemented by Laura Claycomb's delightful Teresa.

But when you come to the works themselves, a lot of the time these details get swept away be the sheer drama and vividness of the performances which Davis engenders. These are highly dramatic performances, whether of opera or no, which project from your speakers in an admirably strong manner. Only with the Te Deum do you sense that the work is seeking to escape from the confines of the Barbican Hall, and with the Grande Messe des morts the recording really does capture the stupendous effect that the performance had when heard live in St Paul's Cathedral (with the extra brass placed high in the dome).

The set comes with David Cairns complete original programme notes for each work, with the operas having a detailed synopsis. Cairns powerfully intelligent writings complement the series admirably, and the only thing I miss is an article placing Davis' Berlioz in context.

There are interesting lacunae. It is surprising that there is only one overture, Les francs-juges, and the lack of Les nuits d'Été is remarkable indeed, and none of the rarer works is there so no Lélio and no Grande symphonie funebre et triomphale. And indeed Warner Classics has issued its own Berlioz boxed set, cherry picking recordings by John Nelson, John Barbirolli, Jean Martinon, Leonard Bernstein, Riccardo Muti, Kent Nagano, Louis Fremaux, Michel Plasson and more to create a mammoth 27 CD complete Berlioz edition. But this set from LSO Live is rather different to that and perhaps more singular, it presents us with a powerful statement from a unique collaboration between conductor and orchestra. It is worth bearing in mind that by the time he recorded the Grande Messe des morts Sir Colin Davis was 85, and whilst you can imagine some of the works on the disc do have an Autumnal glow about them, there is also a sense of vigorous drama.

Berlioz Odyssey
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) - Symphonie fantastique; Roméo et Juliette; La damnation de Faust; Les Troyens; Béatrice et Bénédict; Harold en Italie; L'enfance du Christ; Les francs-juges; Te Deum; Grande Messe des morts
Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra
Recorded live June 2000 to June 2012 at the Barbican Centre and at St Paul's Cathedral

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