Berlioz Roméo et Juliette from Strasbourg

The work of John Nelson in Berlioz's music is one of the glories of the present day

Berlioz Roméo et Juliette from Strasbourg

The work of John Nelson in Berlioz's music is one of the glories of the present day. Nelson creates alchemical magic with the Strasbourg orchestra, and thank the stars that Erato has captured this astonishing performance of Roméo et Juliette, surely Berlioz' most under-rated masterpiece now that Les Troyens is at least beginning to achive the status it deserves.

This was recorded in the Salle Érasme in Strasbourg, part of the Plaais de la Musique et de Congrès; the  live performance I attended was at the Paris Philharmonie, revelatory in every way but battling with the hall's cavernous acoustic. This is far more focused.

What is Berlioz' take on Roméo et Juliette? Soloists clearly play a part and yet this is no opera. But it is certainly dramatic; other parts tend towards a cantata, and it is certainly true the chorus is the major vocal participant; yet there is a marked symphonic element too, with shadows of a four movement symphony present. No missing the Scherzo, for example (the score's most famous passage, the Queen Mab Scherzo at the end of the second part).

Berlioz wrote Roméo et Juliette in the Spring and Summer of 1839. The Montagues and Capulets, at war, are represented by a double chorus. Listen to the stunning accuracy of the orchestra at the opening; but also to how they capture the exact essence of Berlioz' score; and listen to how this is aligned with the choral mastery of the combined Gulbenkian Chorus and the “Chœur de l’OnR” in the choral recitative “D’anciennes haines endormies”. In case you are wondering, the “Chœur de l’OnR” is the chorus of the opera house based in Strasbourg, the Opéra National du Rhin.

The soloists are stunning. Here is Joyce DiDonato in “Premier transports  que nul n'oublie” in a live performance in Strasbourg’; her voice is just as stunning on the recording (and was even more so heard live; don't forget Classical Explorer's post on her Eden disc). Tenor Cyrille Dubois excels in the Scherzetto, “Mab, la messagère fluette et légère”; an atmosphere replicated in the light-as-a-feather, Berlioz-channels-Mendelssohn Queen Mab Scherzo. Christopher Maltman, as we shall see, is superb in the work’s final part.

... and here is the glorious “Scène d’amour”: Nelson is incredibly sensitive to Berlioz' supreme orchestration here, and the Strasbourg orchestra are on top, impassioned form. But for me, the true star is Nelson and his overview of this work - this is one of the most convincing accounts available.His held-breath “Roméo au tombeau des Capulets” is stunning as he prolongs the heavy atmosphere seemingly indefinitely; and how lyrical the bassoons in the “Invocation - Réveil de Juliette”; ;isten to the mesmerising clarinet solos here, too.

The chorus is magnificent: listen to the chorus “Jetez des fleurs pour la vierge expirée” (Strew flowers for the dead virgin) for an indication of just how fine the singers are, or indeed the beginning of the finale (Part 3). It is Christopher Maltman who comes into his own here (Récitatif du Père Laurence, “Je vais dévoiler la mystère”), and his sense of line in his Air, “Pauvres enfants que je pleure” is impeccable (the chorus is on fire at the end of that excerpt, too, and swered by Maltman on absolute full voltage). The work’s close, Friar Lawrence’s sermon with the full chorus, is incredibly powerful; the recording  fully supports these forces in full flight.

What a joy to have Joyce DiDonato as Cleopatre in Berlioz’ “Scène lyrique,” Cléopâtre. I do have fond memories of Jessye Norman in this piece: live, with the Philharmonia under Ashkenazy, and now Decca has released her performance with the Boston Symphony Orchesatra under Seiji Ozawa (from 1994, in a 3-CD set which will indeed be featured on Classical Explorer, Jessye Norman: The Unreleased Masters). So for Joyce DiDonato to effectively erase memories of that (at least, whilst in the act of listening) is a remarkable achievement.

One of Berlioz’ pieces submitted for the coveted Prix de Rome, Cléopâtre dates from 1829 and has a text by Peierre-Ange Vieillard. Naxos has released a disc of all four contatas Berlioz submitted for the prize over the years (available at the link below at the knowck-down pice of £3.98; Béatrice Uria-Monzon is the soloist in Cléopâtre), but it is Cléopâtre that has attained at least some measure of success and popul;arity amongst the listening/concert-going public.

DiDonato seems perfect - fans of Jessye will doubtless fawn over the indivduality of Norman’s voice (and rightly so), but in terms of Berlioz' piece it is DiDonato and Nelson who offer an ideal combination. Just listen to “Ah, qu’ils sont loin ces jours, tournment de ma mémoire,” with DiDonato’s superb sense of line.

Berlioz famously writes in.a heartbeat into this piece (you can hear it at the opening of the dark Méditation, “Grands Pharaons, nobles Lagides”). The heartbeat, on double-basses, returns and falters in the final section, a “Recitatovo misurato’ (Récititif measuré), “Dieux de Nil, vous m'avez trahie!” (Gods of the Nile, you have betrayed me). DiDonato is remarkable, but Nelson even more so. Not just that ominous heartbeat, but the shards of pain that accompany it in the orchestra - we hear Berlioz at his most modern in this utterly remarkable passage.

For all Jessye Norman’s excllence, the Boston Symphony under Ozawa does not have the same resonance with Berlioz’ music as Nelson (on this occasion her folowers might be better advised to search for her version with the Orchestre de Paris and Daniel Barenboim). But it is now DiDonato who takes, for me at least, top slot in this piece.

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