Berlioz: Benvenuto Cellini

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Berlioz
LABELS: LSO Live
ALBUM TITLE: Berlioz
WORKS: Benvenuto Cellini
PERFORMER: Gregory Kunde, Laura Claycomb, Darren Jeffery, Peter Coleman-Wright, John Relyea, Isabelle Cals; London Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Colin Davis
CATALOGUE NO: LSO 0623 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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It might be true to say that Colin Davis and Benvenuto Cellini have been waiting for the arrival of SACD. It would not be true to say that, at 80, time sits lightly on Davis’s shoulders: it sits invisibly and inaudibly. The combination of technology and the conductor’s unimpaired élan makes for glowing textures and shattering climaxes. So if orchestral splendour is your thing, this set is a must. The singing is good too. And if only his 1972 Philips set were not still available (in a nine-disc box, it is true, but often to be picked up cheaply), then this latest version would be a nonpareil. I’m aware, as I’m sure all my fellow critics are, of the dangers of familiarity. But pronouncing as objectively as I can, and after some fairly intensive comparisons, I find the 1972 set, with its array of both seasoned and younger French singers, still unparalleled on the vocal front. Nicolai Gedda may have too lyrical a voice to do full justice to Cellini, the homicidal braggart, and Gregory Kunde manages this and the hero’s tenderer side with equal skill, but Gedda excels at throwaway rhythms to the point you think he must have French blood in his veins somewhere. Laura Claycomb produces a lovely tone, but under pressure it can’t quite match the soaring radiance of Christiane Eda-Pierre, while Isabelle Cals as Ascanio is a little harsh in the upper reaches. In this recording there’s the occasional encouraging moan from Davis, but nothing except appropriate laughter from an impeccably behaved Barbican audience. Roger Nichols