I have been listening recently to a lot of versions of this, my favourite song cycle by a favourite composer. I seem to be in a minority - although by no means alone - in not much enjoying the classic recording by soprano Régine Crespin, whose voice I find grainy and even scratchy, whereas Scottish mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill's delivery is as smooth and smoky as a Laphroaig single malt. She is the most subtle of artists, and whereas I found the smaller-voiced Susan Graham a little too under-stated in her interpretation, I hear a pulsing passion and intensity in Cargill's interpretation. Key moments, such as the concluding lament of the wordless "Ah!" in a key song like "Sur les lagunes", are delivered with great intensity and a boundless, yearning melancholy. She can plumb the depths for "comme un linceul" in the same song but also lighten her voice credibly for "Villanelle". The flickering vibrato is a delight - never a wobble or a slide - and as a listener, one never experiences a moment's uneasiness about her ability to encompass the tessitura or the expressive range of these immensely varied songs. This is an account to stand beside those by Janet Baker, Frederica Von Stade, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Jessye Norman - as you might have gathered, I prefer my "Nuits d'été" with the unity conferred upon the songs when sung by a great mezzo-soprano or a soprano falcon. Cargill's French sounds flawless to me; it is certainly very confident and idiomatic.
About young Robin Ticciati's direction I am marginally less enthused, not because I object to anything about his tempi, phrasing or balances but because he is so evidently a convert to the kind of period practice which dogmatically eschews vibrato in his strings. This persuasion produced a less than enthralling account of a Mendelssohn Piano Concerto I heard him conduct with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at the Proms last summer and I am by no means always persuaded that it does justice to the gorgeous love music from "Roméo et Juliette", which is otherwise sensitively, even magically played.
"La mort de Cléopâtre" is one of my desert island Berlioz compositions and it would take a lot to shake my joint loyalties to Baker's and Norman's riveting versions. Having said that, I thoroughly admire and enjoy Cargill's searingly acted, vocally resplendent account. At times the, slight whine in the SCO's violins accentuate the bitter-sweet immediacy of the queen's reminiscences and the desperate pathos of her plight, yet at times the orchestra sounds under-sized and under-nourished for this epic monologue.
Nonetheless, this is the finest Berlioz singing I have heard for many a year, in startlingly fine sound and offering a programme irresistible to lovers of great singing and the greatest French Romantic composer.
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Despite my allegiance to the Ansermet/Crespin recording since its appearance I am persuaded that the Ticciati/Cargill version has the edge. As in everything else he has performed of Berlioz he brings a clear understanding to this music and knows how to draw it from his performers. Cleopatra that most remarkable and all too original Prix de Rome competition cantata, too original for the judges- they failed it, is here thrillingly and convincingly performed. Ticciati demonstrates that he is continuing the tradition of great Berlioz conductors.