Berlioz: Overtures (SACD review)

Sir Andrew Davis, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. Chandos CHSA 5118.

You’d think that given the familiarity of Berlioz’s various overtures, there would be more stereo albums devoted to them. It doesn’t happen. If you look them up, you’ll find maybe a dozen or so discs devoted exclusively to the overtures. What most companies do is include a few Berlioz overtures along with Berlioz’s longer works, the Symphonie fantastique or Harold in Italy for instance. And, of course, we often get one or two of the composer’s overtures mixed into collections of other famous overtures. Seems a little unfair, but it means that this new SACD recording of seven Berlioz overtures from Sir Andrew Davis and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra doesn’t have a lot of competition. Not that competition would have diminished the merits of this outing in any case; Andrew Davis does quite well.

Before we begin, however, I’d like to refute a claim I read once from a noted music critic who said that all conductors with the name Davis were boring, meaning Sir Andrew Davis and Sir Colin Davis. That, to me, is pretty unfair, making a generalization based on...what?  Both Sir Andrew and Sir Colin Davis have made tons of albums (Colin Davis far more and for far longer) and have millions of fans. No conductor attracts that much positive attention by being boring. I mention this because certainly there is nothing boring about Andrew Davis’s handling of the Berlioz overtures on this album, and they are almost as expressive, emphatic, lyrical, and exciting as Colin Davis’s RCA set. So, take that, noted critic.

Of the seven overtures on the disc, three of them Berlioz (1803-1869) wrote as preludes to operas--Les Francs-juges (1826), Benvenuto Cellini (1838), and Beatrice et Benedict (1862)--and four as self-contained concert works--Waverley (1828), Le Roi Lear (1831), Le Carnaval romain (1844), and Le Corsaire (1844). The concert overtures are like miniature tone poems, the composer basing them mostly on literary sources (Sir Walter Scott for Waverley, Shakespeare for King Lear, elements of James Fenimore Cooper and Lord Byron for Le Corsaire, and his own Benvenuto Cellini for Le Carnaval romain).

Anyway, the program begins with the fiery Corsaire, which conjures up images of dashing pirates and sleek pirate ships. Davis maintains a swaggering forward momentum that seems ideally suited to the swashbuckling music. Contrasted with the thrills of the Corsaire is the overture to the comic-opera Beatrice et Benedict. It is of a lighter, more capricious nature, which Davis delights in.  We see in these works why Berlioz was so influential in the development of the modern orchestra and modern orchestration, inspiring later composers like Franz Liszt (Les preludes), Richard Strauss (Don Juan), Erich Wolfgang Korngold (The Sea Hawk), and John Williams (Star Wars). It’s all quite vivid, heroic, and picturesque.

Les Francs-juges was Berlioz’s first substantial instrumental work, and he was justly proud of it. It sounds appropriately grim, somber, yet lyrical in Davis’s hands, and the Bergen Philharmonic seem more than up to the job, playing in rich, strong, precise accord.

And so it goes. Le Carnaval romain takes us back to the exhilarating pace of Le Corsaire, with a little more lilt in the melodies. Davis handles it in high style. Next, the score for Waverley bears the inscription “Dreams of love and lady’s charms, Give place to honour and to arms.” Davis does a commendable job with the work’s opposing ideas and readily points up the music’s importance to that of later Romantic composers. In Le Roi Lear we get all of Shakespeare’s emotion, turmoil, and poetry compressed into a few minutes. Davis and his players never overdramatize the piece, which I appreciated.

The program ends with the overture to Benvenuto Cellini, music I have sometimes found ponderous and boring in its melodramatic manner. Here, Davis is able to bring out a little more of its color and variety, ending the set in satisfying fashion.

In 2012 Chandos used Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway, as the recording venue for this 24-bit/96kHz 2.0/5.0-channel SACD hybrid surround-sound recording. Like other hybrid SACDs, this one plays back in two channels on a regular CD player and two or five channels on a Super Audio CD player. I popped the disc into my Sony SACD player and listened to the two-channel stereo SACD layer.

The sound I heard was nicely dynamic, with a clean midrange and more than adequate lows. The sound field is a tad on the forward side, but not much. It hasn’t quite the warmth, air, or ambience of the Colin Davis set for RCA, but again it’s close. The clarity and impact of the recording show themselves most noticeably in things like Les Francs-juges, where the timpani and bass make a case for themselves.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click below:


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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.

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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