Berlioz: Les Nuits d'ete (CD review)

Also, Handel: Arias. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, mezzo-soprano; Nicholas McGegan, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Philharmonia Baroque PBP-01.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that the Philharmonia Barque Orchestra is probably the one orchestra I've listened to in-person more than any other. My being a San Francisco Bay Area native and the orchestra being based in the Bay Area these past thirty years or so, I have been able to enjoy a number of their live performances. I have also included the orchestra as a top choice for several works in my "Basic Classical Collection." So, yes, it's always a pleasure to hear a new recording from them.

Philharmonia Baroque is a period-instruments ensemble founded in 1981 and led by its current conductor, Nicholas McGegan, since 1985. They always play with style, panache, refinement, and well-informed period practices. What's more, they have had the good fortune over the years to make quite a few excellent-sounding recordings with Harmonia Mundi, BMG, and Reference Recordings. Their 2011 release of Berlioz's Les Nuits d'ete is the first in a series of discs they are producing themselves, though continuing their distribution with Harmonia Mundi.

French composer Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) wrote his song cycle Les Nuit d'ete (Summer Nights) in 1841, based on six poems by Théophile Gautier. In 1856 Berlioz orchestrated the works in the form we hear them on this program, sung by the late, great mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. While the music is a kind of hodgepodge of pieces the composer worked on over a period of years, there is a distinct personality to every segment that reminds us this was the same man who wrote the Symphonie fantastique and Harold en Italie. About the only thing critics and historians agree upon is that Berlioz probably titled the collection Summer Nights in tribute to William Shakespeare, whom he adored, and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Ms. Lieberson sings the pieces with apt emotional involvement, the songs varying only a little in their nostalgic, sentimental, melancholy, sometimes melodramatic longing. Lieberson's voice soars or simmers as the occasion demands, always providing a comfortable setting for the music. By the time she reaches the third section, "Sur les Lagunes," there is a thrillingly tragic element introduced that quite steals the show. One hardly notices McGegan and the orchestra, they integrate their support so smoothly into the production. Without question, Ms. Lieberson and the Philharmonia Baroque appear ideally suited to this material, producing exquisite realizations of the music.

Accompanying the Berlioz numbers, we get a series of seven arias that George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) composed especially for one of his favorite singers, Margherita Durastanti. Again we find Ms. Lieberson in ravishingly beautiful voice, and one can only imagine she would have made Handel proud with her range, intensity, dynamism, and effortless execution.

Although Philharmonia Baroque released this disc in 2011, they recorded it in 1991 and 1995, live at one of their several San Francisco Bay Area venues, First Congregational Church in Berkeley, California. The sound is rather resonant, with plenty of hall ambience. One notices a bit of background noise and audience rustling throughout, too, a minor distraction we have all become used to in live productions. Ms. Lieberson's voice dominates the proceedings, as it should, the orchestra generally well in the background; however, when the orchestra does come to the fore, it does so in fairly well-defined terms, if not terribly extended in the bass or treble. Overall, Ms. Lieberson's vocals and the orchestra are clear and lifelike, although both voice and ensemble are also a tad bright and hard, perhaps again the result of the live recording. On the Handel, there is an occasional touch of echo, and we must put up with applause at the end of each selection. They are small prices to pay for such eloquent performances.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa