The box is made of strong cardboard, with details of the music to be played on the back. The sleeves are also made of cardboard, with CD number on the front and back, where the music to be played is placed. No track numbers. The CD is black, with writing in white; CD number and pieces to be played. The booklet includes CD numbers, music with track numbers, orchestra and singers. No English translations, although there is space for it. Decca has seen fit to supply only the French libretto's and poems. ADD, no mention of DDD. Recorded 1965 - 1980. The sound is good and I think the CD's have been remastered. All works are conducted by Colin Davis,often with swift tempi, capturing the spirit of Berlioz. A must have and the box set is cheap.
In 1827, it was Hamlet given by a visiting English theatrical company, that would affect Berlioz for the remander of his life. "Shakespeare, coming on me unawares, struck me like a thunderbolt. I recognised the meaning of grandeur, beauty and dramatic truth." (Berlioz's memoirs). Also, his passion for Harriet Smithson, who played Ophelia and Juliet influenced his life, for later on, she shared his life with him. Another great influence was Beethoven, for in 1828 he heard the first ever performances in France of the 3rd and 5th symphonies at the Conservatoire. Berlioz writes that " Beethoven opened before me a new world of music, as Shakespeare had revealed a new universe of poetry." According to MacDonald, Berlioz rarely adopted the precise tone and timbre of Beethoven. He absorbed this impact at a deep level, seeing Beethoven as a supreme dramatist in music, more poet then craftsman. The 9th symphony showed a way forward for Berlioz.
Although Berlioz (1803-1869) was a Romantic, he had little taste for painting. He also did not suffer with nostalgia for the Medieval age. He was no philosopher, since life, for all his idealism, was a practical matter whose problems had to be confronted by action not theories. However, Berlioz adored Gluck, a composer who was part of the Classical movement. This influenced Les Troyens, but with the Romantics feeling and warmth. But only a cut Les Troyens a Carthage was shown at the Theatre Lyrique, Paris, 1863. This opera gained a reputation of being difficult, and the next complete performance was held at Covent Garden in 1957. However, Davis who conducted the first ever recording of Berlioz's les Troyens, and is one of his three favourite composers, stated the following, which could apply to Berlioz. " A musican must make affirmations. If he cannot believe in music as a universal ideal, what is he left with? Music is the expression of a desire to reach an ideal."
CD 1. SYMPHONY FANTASTIQUE: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. TRISTIA (excerpts) Marche funebre pour la derniere scene d' Hamlet. LSO. Recorded in 1974 this symphony has dominated the catalogue for two decades. It is still a primary recommendation. 1996 Penguin Guide. Do not forget the version played on period instruments by John Eliot Gardiner, conducting the Orchestre revolutionnaire et Romantique. This is electrifying. Hugh Macdonald writes about the symphony, that Berlioz was more concerned with the working out of a musical idea according to its lights then in forcing the music into formal strait-jackets. The way in which the musical shape is determined by the character of his ideas has excited composers from Schumann onwards. Tristia. Three works written at different times. They were published as a set in 1852. Borrowed from Ovid, means "sad things". Like Ovid exiled from Rome, Berlioz felt exiled from Paris by the 1848 riots and his disastisfaction with the musical affairs of the city.
CD 2. LELIO ou le retour a la vie. Carreras tenor, Allen Baritone. LSO. GRAND SYMPHONIE FUNEBRE ET TRIOMPHALE. LSO. Lelio was a sequel to Symphonie Fantastique. Lelio takes up the story at the point where the symphony leaves off, when the lovers thrust into Hell now find a certain peace, through art and music. The six musical numbers make a fascinating suite. They range from a Goethe poem with a piano accompaniment, sung excellently by Carreras, through such pieces as a brigands song to an extended fantasy on Shakespeares Tempest. The funebre et Triomphale was originally designed to be performed in the open on the march. The funeral march is haunting.
CD 3. HAROLD EN ITALIE: Nobuko Imai Viola. LES TROYENS a Carthage. Prlelude from Les Troyens a carthage: part 2, act 3. LSO. Les Troyens Act 4. Chasse royal et orage-Pantomime. Marche pour l' entree de la reine. Ballets. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The Viola Solo richly and warmly played by Imai. The Harold in Italy symphony is as near a concerto as Berlioz ever got. A typically Berliozian design, on a vast scale. Toscanini has made a version, furiously fast.
David Cairns writes that Les Troyens manages to capture the tragic spirit and climate of the ancient world ( an almost unique achievement in 19th century dramas, preoccupied as it was with the Judeo- Christian ideas of remorse and redemption), and which captures the ambience of Virgil's Aeneid with uncanny directness into the language of music. They share a sense of the pathos of human life, of man's precarious existence in an inhospitable universe.
CD 4. OVERTURES: Beatrice and Benedict, Benvenuto Cellini ( BBC Symphony Orchestra.) Le roi Lear, Les Francs-juges, Waverley, Le Cosaire, Carnaval romain. LSO. London Symphony Orchestra. The playing undoubtedly has fire and brilliance. Les francs-juges can hold its own with Beecham. Munch's overtures with the Boston orchestra are considered Dazzlingly performed. I am a Berlioz fan, so I have various copies of his works.
CD 5- 6 ROMEO ET JULIETTE: Kern Contralto, Tear tenor, Shirley-Quirk Bass, LSO. Davis has more sympathy with this score and secures playing of great vitality and atmosphere from the LSO. Pierre Monteux's version 1962 is well worth a look. He brings French elan to the music. But I am a fan of the old master. The singers are Resnik contralto, Ward Bass and Andre Turp tenor. Cairns states that Romeo and Juliet was unthinkable without Beethoven.
CD 6-7 I' ENFANCE DU CHRIST: LSO Baker Mezzo, Allen Baritone, Tappy tenor, Bastin Bass, Rouleau Bass, Langridge tenor, Herincx bass. The beautiful balanced recording intensifies the colour and the atmosphere of the writing. Baker and Allen, as ever sing beautifully.
CD 8-9. LA DAMNATION DE FAUST: LSO. Gedda Tenor, Bastin Bass, Veasey mezzo, Van Allan Bass, Knight Mezzo. Both Gedda as Faust and Bastin as Mephistopheles are impressive in this 1974 set. The response of the chorus and orchestra is never less than intelligent and in the quieter passages highly sensitive. A most satisfying account of this work. DGG. Igor Markevitch Orchestre Lamoureux, Paris. Rubio mezzo, Verreau tenor, Roux baritone, Mollet bass. Swift tempo. This is the most French of all versions and won an award. Like Davis he promoted Berlioz's music, which took a long time to be accepted by the French.
CD 10-11. REQUIEM: LSO Dowd tenor. This Requiem was recorded in the Westminster cathedral and thanks to the closeness of the microphones you can hear at places the individual voices in the choir. The LSO provides finely incisive accompaniment. Fiery and fast tempi. TE DEUM:. LSO- Tagliavini- tenor. Stands out even among Davis's Berlioz recordings. Conveys the massiveness, the drama without unwanted enotion. After 30 years, these two performances remain the front runners. For Davis concentrates on the inner meaning of the music. However, Munch's Boston symphony version, remains a distinguished set. Slower tempi. Berlioz was not religious, as Brahms and Verdi were not.
CD 12. LES NUITS D' ETE. Armstrong soprano, Veasey Mezzo, Patterson tenor, Shirley-Quirk Bass. LSO. Davis's insight into the music is not in doubt. But this is one failure in the box set, the four singers do not work together. But Berlioz did think the cycle could be sung by a Man or Woman. The best two versions available are, Crespin cond Ansermet and Baker cond Barbirolli. Always remember music is a subjective art form, and a review is a matter of taste and merely an opinion.
CD 13.LA MORT DE CLEOPATRE: Berlioz entered this work for the Prix de Rome in 1829. He won it in 1830 with a conservative piece now mainly lost. This work does point to a future opera, Les Troyens. HERMINIE: Berlioz's Prix de Rome cantata provided the famous Idee Fixe for the Allegro in the Symphonie Fantastique. 5 MELODIES : La belle voyageuse, Le chasseur demois, La captive, Le jeune patre breton, Zaide. Baker, mezzo, Armstrong soprano, Veasey mezzo, Patterson tenor, Shirley-Quirk bass.
REFERENCES: Bacharach, A & Pearce, J.(Eds) The Musical Companion. 1973. Victor Gollancz Ltd. London. Cairns, D. The memoirs of Berlioz .197O Panther. Cairns, D. Essays on Les Troyens 1970-Phillips. Macdonald, H. Lelio, Tristia. Decca. Macdonald,H. Early Romantic Masters-Berlioz 1985. Macmillan. Penguin Guide 1977, 1996 & 2008.