Berlioz: Overtures - Davis

Berlioz: Overtures - Davis

Chandos  CHSA 5118

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral

Berlioz - Overtures: Le Roi Lear; Le Carnaval romain; Béatrice et Bénédict; Le Corsaire; Waverley; Les Francs-juges; Benvenuto Cellini

Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis

The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis here perform seven dazzling orchestral overtures by Hector Berlioz, a composer who excelled in blending literary and musical elements into highly energetic and personal creations.

The overtures are widely varied in mood, as are the operas from which they were drawn. Berlioz wrote his first large-scale instrumental composition, the Overture to Les Francs-juges, in 1826, the year in which he enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire. Even though the opera itself was never performed, Berlioz remained proudly affectionate of the overture, which was played all over Germany and Holland in its early days. His second opera, Benvenuto Cellini, followed in 1838; its music gave rise both to the opera’s overture and to the concert overture Le Carnaval romain which depicts its subject in brilliant colour through breathtakingly vibrant orchestration.

The comic opera Béatrice et Bénédict took its inspiration from Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing. The overture draws on an intense solo scene for Béatrice and adds elements of the cheerful banter that make up the story of the title characters’ playful courtship.

When Berlioz visited the Hungarian capital Pest in 1846, it was suggested to him that one way of winning the hearts of the audiences there would be to make an arrangement of the beloved Rákóczy March, which up until that point had been known only as a piano piece. Berlioz agreed, and on the very night before he left for Pest, he put together his own orchestral version of the piece. It was a resounding success when performed at his first concert, to the extent that Berlioz promptly included it in the large work on which he was working at the time: La Damnation de Faust.

Le Roi Lear, Le Corsaire, and Waverley have one thing in common: all are independent concert pieces that have been given the title overture as in many respects they do resemble opera overtures – but none is in actual fact connected to an opera. The composer here took his inspiration from literary works. Le Roi Lear, for instance, is a remarkable tone portrait of Shakespeare’s deranged king, full of energy and anger, while Le Corsaire may be loosely based on Byron’s The Corsair. Berlioz based Waverley on a novel of the same name by Sir Walter Scott, and the score bears a quotation in English: ‘Dreams of love and Lady’s charms, give place to honour and to arms.’ The contrast expressed so well in this simple quotation is equally evident in the music itself. Here the ‘dreams of love’ unfold in a long cello melody, which is repeated with richer orchestrations, before leading into the vigorous musical depiction of ‘honour and arms’.

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Reviews (2)

Review by John Miller - February 2, 2013

From the early '60s, Sir Colin Davis has been a first choice for recordings of Bizet's music for many listeners. However, with this superb Chandos disc of the Berlioz Overtures played by the Bergen Philharmonic, it seems like there may be another significant rival for Sir Colin - another Davis. Sir Andrew shows himself to be a very fine conductor of Berlioz indeed.

This well-filled disc carries the seven overtures which have these days become the "official" set for recording. This leaves out the Rob Roy Overture (1831), which Berlioz hated and burned, together with the opera score, after a disastrous first performance (although a copy of the overture remained in the Music Institute in Paris; it used to be played more often decades ago). There was an overture for the 'Flight to Egypt', but this was subsumed into 'L' Enfance de Christ'; and the Prologue for 'Les Troyens' is not technically an overture.

The "Magnificent Seven" overtures are arranged on the Chandos disc in an order which producer and conductor presumably believe will give a better overall listening experience than the order of composition. However, since the overtures were written over 35 years of the composer's career, it is a good idea sometime to programme your player to play the tracks in composition order, thus revealing Berlioz's development of form and experimentation with orchestral colour. This order would be: 3, Les Francs-juges (1826); 5, Waverley (1827); 6, Le Roi Lear (1831); 7, Benvenuto Cellini (1838); 4, Le Carnival Romain (1844); 1, Le Corsair (1844); 2, Béatrice et Bénédict (1862). Copious notes on each overture are also laid out in order of composition by Hugh MacDonald, an excellent biographer of Berlioz, whose contribution is a real feature of this issue.

The Bergen Philharmonic is a large orchestra, which certainly would have pleased Berlioz. Their current reputation for rich and responsive strings, enthusiastic playing and technical excellence in each department would probably have amazed him; on his conducting trips through Europe as recorded in his Mémoires he often had to struggle to find not only orchestras who could play his music at all, but difficulties in getting the right instruments for them. For example, all the overtures except Waverley require a pair of cornets à piston and Benvenuto Cellini and Les Francs-juges require the very odd and now extinct bass instruments, ophicleides. Unless in period performances, tubas are usually used for substitutes, as by the Bergen PO.

Making individual comparisons of Sir David's latest set of overtures (Dresden Philharmonic, RBCD) with Sir Andrew's new SA-CD performances reveals that Sir Andrew is faster in all but Benvenuto Cellini. This is most noticeable for the first track, Le Corsaire. The Bergen PO light up with a bravado which is almost reckless as the pirates it is portraying, leaving one convinced that it was Berlioz himself who invented swashbuckling. The lovely adagio which follows is taken very slowly by Sir Colin, almost becalmed, Whereas Sir David is more flowing, so the melodic lines are emotionally more effective and rhythmically more appealing. Transparency of the recording, aided by Sir Andrew's masterly internal balancing, brings out the composer's intricate orchestration to an extent I have never previously heard, except in some live performances. This is true for all the overtures, which are quite revelatory. For once, you can hear more of the woodwinds (with lovely solos, particularly on the cor anglais), which gives the readings quite a French feeling.

Sir Andrew's Beatrice and Benedict makes full use of his own genial humour, with a really teasing courtship of the lovers played with much delicacy and precision. In stark contrast, the sombre Francs-juges is given a gloweringly powerful and sombre mien, with the heavy brass (sans ophicleides) presaging the four brass bands of the Requiem (composed the following year). Francs-juges continues with a truly bouncy rhythm for its Big Tune, and Sir Andrew has wonderful control over the long Rossianian crescendo which heralds the end of the overture. If you want some evidence of the stirring massed tone of the strings, listen to them about 5 mins into Le Roi Lear, with its brilliant brass interpolations.

And so it goes. The rest of the overtures also often seem minted anew, and are all safe in Sir Andrew's hands, giving the Dresden players a run for their money. Graced with superbly natural and vivid sound, especially in multichannel mode, where the rich ambience of the Grieg Hall fully embraces the orchestra's full dynamic range, I'm adopting this disc as easily my favourite. These overtures remain long in the memory.

On the evidence of this disc, I would love to hear these forces produce a Berlioz 'Romeo and Juliet'. In the meantime, however, we have a wonderful collection of overtures, which will not be allowed to stray far from the player. Recommended without reserve.

Copyright © 2013 John Miller and


Sonics (Multichannel):

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Review by John Broggio - February 25, 2013

An outstanding release in all but one respect.

First, all the multitude of positives: the Bergen Phiharmonic are clearly one of the top orchestras employed regularly in the recording studio at present by many companies (most of the prolific ones fortunately support SACD) and their cultured response can be measured by the distinct tone colours they invest each composer - no mono-cultural sound here.

Next is the almost inspired direction of Sir Andrew Davis who gives readings that his compatriot in England would not be in the least ashamed of. The allegro's are dashing and full of electricity that characterises the best Berlioz conducting; the lyrical passages are still given time to shine and, to pick but one example, one can readily imagine the smiles on the players faces in the main melody of Les Francs-Juges. Davis & the Bergen Philharmonic also manage, with considerable orchestral forces, a clarity that is not often achieved at slower tempos than these. One should not worry that this achieved at the expense of due weight from (say) the trombones though for they make their presence felt without ever overstepping any boundaries of good taste. Similar considerations apply to the percussion section; in many ways this is a demonstration disc.

However, there is a bugbear of mine that this disc serves to irritate. I shall never understand why orchestras, their conductors (and, in recordings, the production team) conspire to reduce the musical drama by placing the first & second violins next to one another. One only has to turn to Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique - Ticciati to hear how much more interplay there is in the music that Berlioz painstakingly mapped out. I consider it the height of musical arrogance to ride roughshod over a composer like Berlioz (Mahler is another) who we know cared hugely about the orchestration, its effects and spatial considerations. I recognise that this issue is not of such importance to others but those who like their orchestras to be seated as the composers intended & enjoy the musical argument to the full, be warned!

The Chandos engineers have excelled themselves, in terms of faithfulness of timbre and transparency of sound, this cannot be faulted (or indeed imagined to be bettered in any meaningful way).

Recommended whilst we await future instalments from Robin Ticciati (who has equal measure of this music and provides the "real deal" as far as orchestral layout goes) to complete a set.

Copyright © 2013 John Broggio and


Sonics (Multichannel):

stars stars