Roméo et Juliette, Op.17
Les Nuits d’été, Op.7
Melanie Diener (soprano)
Kenneth Tarver (tenor)
Denis Sedov (bass)
The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
The Cleveland Orchestra
Recorded in May 2000, Masonic Auditorium, Cleveland
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: June 2004
CD No: DG 474 237-2 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 4 minutes
Like so many of his works, Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette is not easily defined or categorised. Described by the composer as a ‘Dramatic Symphony’, it is nevertheless a hybrid piece with elements of cantata and opera alongside the purely symphonic. The soprano and tenor soloists are heard only in the Prologue, Strophes and Scherzetto, and then comparatively briefly – the tenor especially so. The bass has an extended, indeed named role – Père Laurence – and appears solely in the finale where the full chorus is also heard for the first time. In the Prologue, a semi-chorus sings largely in a recitative-like manner, setting the scene and outlining the tale. Two offstage male choruses sing as they leave the Capulets’ ball at the start of part two, and a chorus of Capulets lament Juliet’s demise. But the most substantial of the seven movements are the purely orchestral ones, and these have often been extracted from the whole work and, in fact, recorded more frequently than the complete symphony.
Pierre Boulez, in his first recording of Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette, seeks to emphasise the symphonic aspects of this disparate piece. Thematic material is presented with meticulous lucidity, and one can follow the threads of the musical argument with unusual clarity. Thus the opening, with its bristling fugue and subsequent brass pronouncements (representing the fighting families and the Prince of Verona’s intervention), sounds less like incidental music than a genuinely introductory symphonic movement. The choral recitatives that follow are delivered in a matter-of-fact manner; effective enough, though a little more flexibility would not have gone amiss. The orchestral interjections are characterful, and the coda in which Romeo is reported to reveal himself to Juliet is given with due rapture, as befits the ‘Appassionato’ marking in the score.
Although not the contralto specified by Berlioz, soprano Melanie Diener sings the strophes with a beguiling expression, accompanied by liquid harp and palpitating winds and, in the second stanza, the cellos add their ardent counter-melody with impeccable phrasing. Kenneth Tarver is nimble – as is Boulez – in the ‘Mab’ Scherzetto, if without quite the ideal lightness of characterisation that can be found in native French singers, such as Jean Dupouy on Seiji Ozawa’s Boston recording, also on DG. With these vocal sections, the Prologue concludes and the orchestra-dominated symphonic portions begin.
Part Two, commencing with ‘Romeo alone’ and culminating in the Ball, is initially given a remote, otherworldly quality from the violins, who trace their melancholy line without excessive vibrato. Following an exquisite oboe solo, as animation and colour increase, Boulez gathers the various elements together and gives a reading of the Ball music of magnificent opulence. And when the Romeo theme is heard in counterpoint on brass (strong, but not blaring), the sense of thematic – as well as dramatic – culmination is overwhelming.
The offstage male voices, representing the departing revellers, at the start of the Love Scene are acoustically well-placed, and the main body of this Adagio movement is given a flowing reading with, as might be expected of Boulez, details of scoring making their telling points. Ideally, a little more ardour and open-hearted passion would have conveyed the expression of this passionate music even more. Here the accompanying vibrations need to be more than just rhythmic pulsing, but the reading has its own purpose, and fits with Boulez’s symphonically orientated conception.
The purely orchestral ‘Queen Mab’ Scherzo is deftly played and brilliantly conducted. The fleet-footed scoring – surely unprecedented in symphonic music – Is realised as completely as one could wish, and the instrumental details ranging from delicate harps and tinkling antique cymbals to snoring bassoons register most vividly.
The chorus makes a re-appearance for Juliet’s cortège. Its tolling chant, accompanied by lamenting strings – later the roles are ingeniously reversed – recalls a similar device employed by Berlioz in the ‘Offertorium’ movement of his Grande Messe des Morts. There is a danger that this movement can outstay its welcome, but Boulez ensures that the music’s momentum is maintained by taking heed of the ‘non troppo lento’ marking.
The penultimate movement is the most closely linked with the dramatic action, with brief phrases depicting specific incidents such as Juliet’s awakening and Romeo’s rapturous reaction, and concluding with the death of the lovers. Some of this music is downright strange, with a quasi-expressionistic character, and Boulez captures this appropriately, without unnecessary exaggeration.
The finale is sometimes considered something of a letdown after the teeming invention that precedes it. Berlioz constructs what might be termed a rather ‘conventional’ operatic scene. And operatic in the genre of French ‘Grand Opera’ such as Meyerbeer made his own in Paris during Berlioz’s lifetime. But Berlioz’s sense of drama is, of course, personal and his orchestral characterisation, in particular, is in a different league from those of his more commonplace contemporaries. The still-quarrelling families are depicted with music that recalls the Prologue and, eventually, the reconciliation is depicted in a grand, luxuriant manner. The bass soloist has an important part to play, and perhaps Denis Sedov is mite too youthful sounding for the gravity of Père Laurence’s authoritative utterances.
Nevertheless, this final movement does not disappoint and draws a distinguished reading of the whole symphony to a rousing conclusion. Boulez does not over-hype the drama; his conception is one of thorough integrity and is a distinguished addition to this work’s discography.
Most recordings of Roméo et Juliette stand alone, but Boulez has an important bonus with the presence of Les Nuits d’été, arguably the first orchestral song-cycle, although Berlioz does not seem to have ever performed the work complete. Instead, individual songs were included in his concerts, with vocal parts tailor-made for specific singers. Although we are used to primarily hearing the Les Nuits d’été with a single singer, this was not the composer’s intention. Boulez’s approach is a compromise since, strictly speaking, only two of the six songs as performed on this recording conform with the voice-type specified by the composer – “Absence” and “Au cimetière”, Kenneth Tarver the expressive tenor. A soprano is not called for at all, but Melanie Diener is delightful in the opening “Villanelle” and exhilarating in the concluding “L’île inconnue” – both songs specified as being for mezzo-soprano or tenor. Bass Denis Sedov takes the contralto second song “La Spectre de la rose” and the baritone (or mezzo-soprano or contralto) third, “Sur les lagunes”. His lugubrious delivery is not really ideally suited to either, and some low notes are rather wanting in focus.
It might seem odd to commend a performance of songs because of their accompaniment, but Boulez’s realisation of Berlioz’s orchestration is instructive and affecting in itself. From the delicacy of “Villanelle”, to the poignancy of “Absence” and the windswept seascape of the “L’île inconnue”, Boulez does not disappoint. The performances, as ever with this musician, have been prepared with scrupulous care. In spite of Berlioz’s multi-voice conception, it would be foolish to dismiss the now-established practice of a single singer – Janet Baker with Barbirolli (EMI) or Susan Graham with John Nelson (Sony). The latter is a lovely reading and is coupled with arias and scenes from Berlioz operas. For a more ‘authentic’ realisation of Berlioz’s vocal assignations, one can turn to Colin Davis (Philips), though there is some variable singing and the playing does not have the finesse of the Cleveland Orchestra, which plays superbly throughout.
My only real disappointment with Boulez’s issues is that some of the balance – particularly in Roméo et Juliette – sounds artificial; winds and solo voices are occasionally too close, and a little more air around the ensemble generally would have been welcome. Having said which, the acoustic does seem to ‘open out’ very well for the symphony’s last movement.
All told, then, this is a highly recommendable release, one deserving a place on the shelves of admirers of Hector Berlioz and Pierre Boulez.