Berlioz: Les nuits d'été
Just about everyone, myself included, welcomed Robin Ticciati and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s first recording in their Berlioz series, Symphonie fantastique, particularly for its smaller-scale approach, keenly focused and not Romantically sprawling, so recalling Berlioz’s Classical influences. This is also true of their second disc, but I found myself asking whether it would work quite as well because in both these pieces the solo voice has such a major role, hardly lending itself, one might think, to such reduction and concentration.
Scottish star mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill, in fact, has a remarkably beautiful voice, full of sunny delicacy and warmth but also capable of Wagnerian dramatics. Her French will do almost as well as, say, Susan Graham’s, infusing innocent terms like ‘des fraises des bois’ with gentle sensuality, while not stinting the anguish of loss and regret. But the orchestral side must not be eclipsed, especially in Mort de Cléopâtre’s harmonic and rhythmic contortions (‘Well, she is dying in agony!’ the composer pointed out).
It’s worth remembering, though, that Berlioz’s own orchestras were often relatively small. Ticciati’s chamber forces do make a difference from the sound we’re used to, without disturbing any essential balances. Against them, the brass especially, the voice sounds more at ease and more flexible, no longer competing with full symphonic power; the players in turn underpin Cargill’s performance with more precise shading, especially since individual instruments stand out more sharply. The overall effect is less potentially controversial than in the Symphony, but still contributes an air of freshness and immediacy which I greatly enjoyed.
Michael Scott Rohan