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VINE VOICEon 31 May 2013
Oddly, this Naxos CD, with its very useful conspectus of the pieces Berlioz wrote when attempting to gain the Prix de Rome, was only released in 2003; it was recorded as long ago as 1994/95. The recording is fine, but turn the volume up a bit to get the best effect.

Here we have Jean-Claude Casadesus with the Orchestre National de Lille with the four cantatas Berioz wrote between 1827 and 1830 when trying to please the judges of the much-coveted Prix de Rome. As Berioz suddenly sprang as if from nowhere in the context of his contemporaries, its no surprise that the judges often took a pretty dim view of his work. The soloists, Michèle Lagrange (soprano), Béatrice Uria-Monzon (mezzo-soprano) and Daniel Galvez Vallejo (tenor) are more than up to the job in hand even though they are hardly well-known.

The Choeur Régional Nord/Pas-de-Calais are just fine, too.

Much the same can be said about the works on this disc; not very well-known but more than worthwhile, as are Keith Anderson's notes. Full texts and translations are provided. Whilst you might not reach for this CD of immature works very often, its a keeper and comes recommended.
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on 27 April 2015
Wonderful examples of the early Berlioz. Some of the Cantatas he submitted every year to the competition in Paris.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 1 January 2011
The previous more enthusiastic reviewers on Amazon.com might have been swayed by the intrinsic interest and originality of the music itself. As a big Berlioz fan, I have some sympathy with their endorsement, but it is precisely because I know and love the two main pieces here that I cannot agree that these are the performances to buy if you want them in your collection. Collected here are the four cantatas Berlioz wrote for the coveted Prix de Rome between 1827 and 1830, when he finally won - ironically with what was probably the weakest and most conventional piece as far as we can judge from the fragment which survives. Apart from the fact that neither "La Mort d'Orphée" nor "La Mort de Sardanapole" is typical of Berlioz's best music and the latter is merely a surviving fragment, they are both rendered unlistenable by the throaty, strangulated tenor of one Daniel Gallez-Vallejo. Apparently he has enjoyed some success in Europe, but I have never heard of him and he does not seem to have prospered since this recording was made in 1995.

Regarding the two longer, justly more celebrated works, they are given decent performances by the two good French singers here but you don't have to look very far to find better. Béatrice Uria-Monzon gives us a straightforward, robustly sung Cléopâtre which delivers nothing of the searing drama provided by Janet Baker or the noble intensity of Jessye Norman in her version - and she ducks a climactic B flat, taking a lower G option, which now sounds plain wrong. Apart from a fleeting moment of excitement when he delivers a startling asp bite which made this listener jump, Casadesus' accompaniments are rather turgid, missing many nuances. The best performance by far is that of Herminie by the large-voiced dramatic soprano Michèle Lagrange, who exploits her trenchant lower register and rich oboe-tones most effectively as well as having secure, ringing top notes - and her presence seems to perk Casadesus up a bit, but this is only 20 minutes of music on a disc lasting an hour, and once more Janet Baker does more with this cantata which provided the idée fixe theme eventually used in the Symphonie fantastique.

So this is not one of Naxos's more attractive offerings and I advise you to look elsewhere for superior accounts.
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on 4 March 2011
I feel my fellow reviewer is too severe. It's true that Cleopatre has attracted more recordings than the other cantatas Berlioz entered for the Prix de Rome, and that some superb singers have tackled it - I was impressed by the Susan Graham version, conducted by Rattle, for example Berlioz - Symphonie Fantastique Op 14; La Mort de Cléopâtre, but the point of this CD is to introduce the lesser known Berlioz and you'd be hard-pressed to find alternatives for Sardanapale or Orphee, and certainly not at budget price.

What you have here are wholly acceptable performances, well recorded by a French team, and with full documentation. I'm fascinated by La Mort d'Orphee (1827) because of its anticipation of Bruckner; the opening tremolo for hushed strings is redolent of the great Austrian's NInth Symphony. The cantata, pictureque at first, becomes quite dramatic later, and I find no cause for objecting to Vallejo's singing. All three soloists distinguish themselves, but given that this music is likely to come to your attention after the Berlioz biggies - sacred music, operas, symphonies - what's the worry if the singers are not star names.
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