Berlioz: Herminie; La mort de Cléopâtre; La mort de Sardanapale; La mort d’Orphée

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COMPOSERS: Berlioz
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: 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); Nord/Pas-de-Calais Regional Chorus, Lille National Orchestra/Jean-Claude Casadesus
CATALOGUE NO: 8.555810
Berlioz was determined to win the prestigious Prix de Rome, both for the much-needed cash it provided and as a means of gaining his parents’ approval. The first three cantatas he submitted for the prize – La mort d’Orphée, Herminie and La mort de Cléopâtre – proved too much for the judges to stomach. So he bowed to the inevitable, toned down his audacity and duly won the 1830 prize with La mort de Sardanapale. With the prize safely in the bag he then amplified the cantata with a spectacular conflagration scene, which is all of the work that survives today.

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The best-known music here, of course, is La mort de Cléopâtre, an astonishingly impassioned and prophetic piece that foreshadows the great death scenes of Juliet and Dido. Béatrice Uria-Monzon doesn’t quite banish memories of Janet Baker’s painfully intense EMI recording; and not all her words are ideally clear. But with her ample, burnished mezzo she vividly charts Cleopatra’s interior journey from nostalgic regret through despair to terror and final numbness as her life slips into oblivion. Michèle Lagrange’s singing of the more Classical Herminie is equally fine, both in the noble, Gluckian opening aria and the sabre-rattling bravado of the close.

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There are more shades of Berlioz’s idol Gluck in the marvellous La mort d’Orphée, which ranges from idyllic enchantment to a chorus of frenzied Bacchantes. Daniel Galvez-Vallejo can lunge coarsely into top notes, though he catches the elegiac lyricism of his first aria touchingly enough. The chorus sings with more enthusiasm than polish, but under Casadesus’s fiery direction the Lille orchestra brings out all the boldness and strangeness of Berlioz’s scoring. A word of praise, too, in the epilogue of La mort d’Orphée, for the clarinettist’s wonderfully poetic playing. Richard Wigmore