Berlioz: Cantates du Prix de Rome: Herminie; La mort de Cléopâtre; La mort de Sardanapale; La mort d’Orphée

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Berlioz
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Cantates du Prix de Rome: Herminie; La mort de Cléopâtre; La mort de Sardanapale; La mort d’Orphée
PERFORMER: Michèle Lagrange (soprano), Béatrice Uria-Monzon (mezzo-soprano), Daniel Galvez Vallejo (tenor); Choeur Régional Nord, Orchestre National de Lille/Jean-Claude Casadesus
CATALOGUE NO: HMC 901542
Berlioz’s fight to win the Rome Prize is detailed in his memoirs. That he failed in 1828 with Herminie sufficiently disgraced the judges, and the non-award for 1829 (Cléopâtre) is shocking. These cantatas have already been recorded, Cléopâtre several times; for a coupling, one could call on Baker or Plowright. Herminie contains the main theme of the Symphonie fantastique; Cléopâtre looks ahead to several later works.

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But this disc adds the 1827 cantata Orphée, a strange blend of beauty and banality, and the first recording of a tantalising fragment, the 1830 Sardanapale. Berlioz destroyed the latter, perhaps because it actually won the prize; what survives is a rough score of the closing scene. Themes from Roméo et Juliette and Les troyens appear fleetingly; a languishing clarinet solo deserves a larger frame; the rest makes little sense, particularly as Berlioz planned a fiery coda, also lost.

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Lagrange is splendidly dramatic in Herminie, and Uria-Monzon, a ripe mezzo, is nearly as good in Cléopâtre. Vallejo has more of a struggle with some cruelly high tessitura in Orphée and the fragment, which also involve chorus. The balance is less than ideal, strings and chorus being too remote relative to wind and solo voices. Julian Rushton