Berlioz: Lélio, ou Le retour à la vie; Le carnaval romain; Hélène

COMPOSERS: Berlioz
LABELS: Chandos
ALBUM TITLE: Berlioz
WORKS: Lélio, ou Le retour à la vie; Le carnaval romain; Hélène
PERFORMER: Sune Hjerrild, Gert Henning-Jensen (tenor), Jean-Philippe Lafont (baritone); Danish National Choir & SO, DR/Thomas Dausgaard
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 10416
Dausgaard’s Carnaval romain is lively and colourful, but there’s any amount of competition; the choral ballad Hélène is pleasant but slight. So the main interest is the relative rarity Lélio, aka Le retour à la vie (The Return to Life), Berlioz’s pendant to the Symphonie fantastique and originally performed with it. Just as the Symphonie grew out of Berlioz’s tormented love for Irish actress Harriet Smithson, so Lélio charts his rebirth, which was inspired by a new (and equally disastrous) love, the pianist Camille Moke.

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Lélio, though, has little musical cohesion, symphonic or otherwise. It’s a grab-bag of existing pieces illustrating the composer’s familiar obsessions, linked by the eponymous hero’s monologue, a wordy exercise in self-dramatization. His musings range from a Goethe ballad to fantasies of becoming a brigand chief – cue a jolly song about making raped girls drink from their murdered lovers’ skulls! – through melancholy meditations, to Shakespeare, with Lélio ‘rehearsing’ the attractive Tempest Fantasy, and, added later, an echo of the Symphonie’s idée fixe theme. Well received in Berlioz’s lifetime – Liszt staged a special performance at Weimar – Lélio afterwards fell from sight until Boulez’s 1967 premiere recording, with legendary actor Jean-Louis Barrault (on Sony, now deleted).

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Dausgaard’s elegant conducting bears comparison with this, and the still available version without narrative by Sir Colin Davis. However baritone Jean-Philippe Lafont simply isn’t an interesting enough speaker to make Lélio more than a Gallic windbag, while Sune Hjerrild doesn’t sing French ideally clearly. Davis, with José Carreras and Thomas Allen, leads the field for now. Michael Scott Rohan