Berlioz: Roméo et Juliette; La damnation de Faust; L’enfance du Christ; Requiem; Te Deum; Les nuits d’été; Lélio; La mort de Cléopâtre

COMPOSERS: Berlioz
LABELS: Philips
WORKS: Roméo et Juliette; La damnation de Faust; L’enfance du Christ; Requiem; Te Deum; Les nuits d’été; Lélio; La mort de Cléopâtre
PERFORMER: Janet Baker, Patricia Kern, Josephine Veasey, Sheila Armstrong, Gillian Knight, José Carreras, Nicolai Gedda, Robert Tear, John Shirley-Quirk, Thomas Allen, Eric Tappy, Joseph Rouleau, Philip Langridge, Raimund Herincx, Jules Bastin, Richard Van Allan; Wa
CATALOGUE NO: 462 252-2 ADD Reissue (1968-80)
Philips’s commendable zeal in reissuing the Colin Davis Berlioz cycle on CD is qualified, because this new collection includes the identical Roméo et Juliette and Lélio (equivalent to two CDs) of its ‘Complete Orchestral Music’. The box of operas, however, did not include La damnation de Faust, and this, the sacred pieces, songs and cantatas, are welcome in this economy package which may, indeed, be our last chance to obtain one of the glories of the LP era.

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The collection is replete with fine solo singing. Les nuits d’été, given by four voices in the original keys, brings back the charm of Sheila Armstrong and the sterling merit of John Shirley-Quirk, who is also Friar Lawrence. Josephine Veasey’s magnificent ‘Le spectre de la rose’ reminds us why she was Davis’s favourite Berlioz heroine, at least until Baker came along. Veasey is outstanding as Margarita in Faust, where Jules Bastin, gruff Herod in L’enfance du Christ, is the frighteningly urbane Mephistopheles. Baker is strongly cast as Mary, and sings the two early cantatas.

Davis had less luck with tenors. Frank Patterson strains at the tessitura and the language in his songs; in the Requiem that fine operatic trouper Ronald Dowd is not quite desirably ethereal. But Franco Tagliavini sings nobly in the glorious Te Deum and Nicolai Gedda, in what is still the benchmark recording, personifies Faustian ennui, then glows with love, his top C sharp alone worth the money.

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The commitment of the performances shines through any slight signs of age in the actual sound. The London Symphony Chorus is at its best in Faust, and the Orchestra achieved great things for Davis throughout this labour of love. Once thought of as a hard driver of this music, Davis can be among the slower performers, notably of the Requiem; if forced to distinguish, I would rate this a shade below the rest, especially the dramatic and lyric, in which Davis is unsurpassed.