LSO Live – Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini/Sir Colin Davis

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Benvenuto Cellini – Opera in two acts to a libretto by Auguste Barbier & Léon de Wailly [sung in French]

Benvenuto Cellini – Gregory Kunde
Teresa – Laura Claycomb
Giacomo Balducci – Darren Jeffery
Fieramosca – Peter Coleman-Wright
Francesco – Andrew Kennedy
Ascanio – Isabelle Cals
Pompeo – Jacques Imbrailo
Pope Clement VII – John Relyea
Bernardino – Andrew Foster-Williams
Cabaretier – Alasdair Elliott

London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Recorded 26 & 29 June 2007 in Barbican Hall, London

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: June 2008
CD No: LSO LIVE LSO0623 (2 CDs) [CD/SACD Hybrid]
Duration: 2 hours 28 minutes



At last LSO Live completes its library of Berlioz operas in performances under Sir Colin Davis – and so we now have his wise and perceptive thoughts on all these pieces which he has for so long championed. His studio recording of “Benvenuto Cellini” dates from 1972, while this current one is from concert performances at the Barbican Hall in June 2007. It now joins a ‘Cellini’ discography that may not be numerous but it is distinguished – particularly those versions conducted by John Nelson and Roger Norrington, both of which incorporate recent scholarly discoveries and allow the listener to hear different versions Berlioz made to ‘Cellini’ usually for reasons of expediency. All are fascinating listening.

Davis’s second recording essentially adopts the same edition he used in his trailblazing 1972 recording, though with a few cuts. In the context of being recorded at concerts this is understandable as much of the vocal writing is extraordinarily challenging to both soloists and chorus and one wants these performers to remain as fresh as possible and keep the dramatic sense and tension going. As such it’s a valuable record of some fine performances.

The reproduction has admirable brightness and clarity, the orchestra and soloists miked quite closely. This allows Berlioz’s complex orchestral and compositional effects to leap out of the speakers. Occasionally one wants for a degree more acoustic spaciousness, usually when the chorus is participating, but these moments are few and far between.

What is striking is how Davis and his players manage to capture the score’s mercurial qualities which switches, often only momentarily, from the intimate and reflective to the extrovert and grand in helter-skelter fashion. With all his experience Davis makes the ride as exhilarating and hair-raising as one would wish, and yet he manages to ensure that the undercurrent of intrigue and potential violence that exists within the plot and lurks within the orchestration fully registers. Myriad tempo-changes never sound forced but come over as completely natural even when unexpected, and the sheer energy of all the patter moments such as the Act One trio is staggering. The LSO gives a virtuoso account of the music, with percussive colour, woodwind chatter and lyrical and atmospheric string-writing emerging freshly and wittily. There are numerous felicities along the way – at several times you almost need to track back to make sure you really heard what you thought you had!

The cast is also a fine one with several of the singers reprising their accounts of their roles from other recordings. Gregory Kunde is a fine Cellini, as he was for Nelson, and he manages to remain miraculously fresh throughout the performance. The singer of this role has the impossible task of being inspired, heroic, lyrical, amorous, fiery, likeable and humorous in equal measures. If Kunde’s singing is not always the most graceful or effortless he does manage to capture the headstrong and bullish nature of the character to perfection and yet manages to remain engaging. Sometimes, particularly in Cellini’s more amorous moments, greater sweetness of tone would be welcome – but it’s a remarkably complete and enjoyable performance.

As Teresa Laura Claycomb takes a little time to warm up – she’s not ideally steady or poised at her first appearance, indeed she sounds almost fluttery. From then on she relaxes and gives a performance of some bravura; one that is alert to dramatic situation and not just a technical display of vocal athleticism.

Through sheer vocal presence and colouring, Peter Coleman-Wright manages to make Fieramosca more than just a farcical villain. Isabelle Cals is a bright-voiced rather soprano-ish Ascanio, one who turns in a lively and engaging interpretation and delivers her solo moment with some panache. The basses are perhaps the slight weakness of the casting. Darren Jeffery has a fine rounded voice and although he’s got the pomposity he sounds almost too young as the irascible Balducci. John Relyea’s Pope Clement VII lacks the fulsome bass sound that is needed to go with Berlioz’s wonderful depiction of the charismatic and majestic pontiff. The London Symphony Chorus is very fine and appropriately raucous-sounding as the carnival crowds aided by Davis’s almost-reckless tempos.

This new set may not supplant Davis’s earlier recording with its slightly stronger and more balanced cast in the affections of collectors. That said the earlier recording is (at present, July 2008) only available as part of boxed collection of all Sir Colin’s accounts of Berlioz’s operas for Philips. Like his other LSO Live recordings of these operas, if you want a scintillating account of “Benvenuto Cellini”, then this is a real bargain – one that will repay repeated listening.

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