Hector Berlioz: Roméo & Juliette

Le retour à la vie - this extraordinary work, half-literary, half-musical reflected much of the thoughts and ideas also found in his letters of the time, using music that was largely written earlier in Paris. The genesis of the work was yet another love-affair gone wrong. The six musical numbers of Lélio are wholly diverse in subject and treatment, yet a sense of order is imposed by the literary format. It is a unique assemblage, there is nothing else quite like it in all musical history.

Roméo et Juliette is counted third among Berlioz’s 4 symphonies. Another uniquely constructed work, it moves away from the purely symphonic towards the realm of opera. But Berlioz keeps the formal structure of a symphony firmly in his mind: the three principal instrumental sections – Fete chez Capulet, Scene d’amour, and La reine Mab – making a first movement, slow movement and scherzo encircled by elaborate vocal sections to begin and end.



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This is a double bill of vintage recordings to excite the interest of any devoted Berliozian, especially as it features two under-recorded conductors and a work which remains neglected, although perhaps not without reason. Lélio is a highly original but strange and diffuse piece, encompassing six musical numbers all of which are very different from each other, linked by an overblown, hyper-Romantic narrative and the literary theme of the artist healing himself following unhappy love affairs by immersing himself in his music; it was intended as sequel to the Symphonie fantastique and in his subsequent revision Berlioz specifically made his future wife, Harriet Smithson, its object.

This live performance gives us the whole shebang and Speaker Raymond Nemorin decides to throw caution to the winds and deliver its emotive excesses in a fully animated and unashamedly whole-hearted manner and it is, enough to embarrass any buttoned-up Englishman - but it is a pleasure to hear the French so beautifully enunciated.

We also hear Michel Sénéchal’s distinctive, nasal, yet attractive and very French lyric tenor as Lélio; he is in fine voice. His opening song, the lilting and memorable strophic ‘Fisherman’s Song’, set to Goethe’s text, is beguilingly sung but at rather too slow a pace for my taste; his elegant pianist is uncredited. Baritone Bernard Lefort gives us a neat, lively ‘Brigands’ Song’ and the BBC Chorus is more than competent, if too recessed. Berlioz lifted and reworked so much of his own material in Lélio that part of its charm resides in playing ‘Spot that tune’ – the idée fixe from Symphonie fantastique, tunes from La mort de Cléopâtre, La mort d’Orphée and Benvenuto Cellini. (Question: did Richard Strauss steal wholesale the opening melodic riff of the ‘Chanson de bonheur’ for one of my favourites among his Lieder ‘Breit über mein Haupt’ and am I the first to notice?) Why Berlioz had his Chorus of Spirits of the Air sing in Italian rather French for the Tempest Fantasy, I do not know; it is certainly the most original of the six vocal sections and is given a confident account.

The Roméo et Juliette here has considerably more competition in the catalogue. The light-voiced tenor René Soames sings neatly enough as Mercutio, if unmemorably, and sounds rather English in terms of both voice and accent. David Ward is his usual, sonorous, dependable self; he reprised the role of Père Laurence in the Monteux recording referred to above.

Both conductors seem wholly at home in Berlioz’ mercurial idiom, unfazed by the swift succession of moods and tempi and the orchestral playing in both is fine – insofar as we can hear it clearly. The BBC brass is especially impressive when depicting the Prince’s strictures in the opening and the woodwind playing throughout is lovely.

Indeed, that is an issue; aesthetic considerations apart, the main obstacle to appreciating this twofer and giving it a whole-hearted endorsement is its recording quality: Lélio has been transferred from analogue tape and Roméo from acetates. By and large, the remastering is good; there is some unavoidable hiss and distortion in both, if perfectly listenable. MusicMeb-International

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