Berlioz: Roméo et Juliette; Cléopâtre. © 2023 Parlophone Records Ltd

CD Spotlight

Immense Dramatic Power

GERALD FENECH listens to Berlioz

'... an interpretation overflowing with passion and flair ...'


'What makes Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) such a great composer?', asks conductor John Nelson. 'In one word, originality ...He broke all existing traditions of orchestration, structure, harmonic language and storytelling. Even today, his music is fresh, surprising us at every turn with inexpressible beauty.'

Roméo et Juliette was premiered in 1839 and, although the reception was mixed, the work was soon hailed as a masterpiece. As the composer recounted: 'I settled on the idea of a symphony with choruses, vocal solos and choral recitatives for which Shakespeare's drama would be the sublime subject to incorporate all these elements.'

In his preface to the piece Berlioz wrote: 'Let there be no misunderstanding about the genre of the work. Although voices are often employed, it is neither a concert opera nor a cantata but a choral symphony. If singing is featured from the start, it is so as to prepare the listener's mind for dramatic scenes whose emotions and passions are to be expressed by the orchestra alone.'

Listen — Berlioz: Invocation (Roméo et Juliette)
(5054197481383 CD1 track 13, 5:18-6:07) ℗ 2023 Ascanio's Purse :

In a letter to his librettist Emile Deschamps, he had even said: 'It is an orchestra performing an opera'. Maybe the most sincere adulation for this mighty work came from the legendary Paganini, who not only sent Berlioz a cheque for 20,000 francs but also remarked: 'Beethoven is dead, only Berlioz can revive him' - a testament to the unique originality and immense dramatic power of Roméo et Juliette.

Like a number of other French composers Berlioz aspired to win the coveted Prix de Rome. Indeed he achieved his aim in 1830 after four attempts, but practically nothing has survived of these compositions, as Berlioz destroyed a substantial part of them and most of the music was recycled in other works. The only piece that has stood the test of time is the 1829 Cléopâtre.

The Death of Cleopatra was composed when Berlioz was still in an experimental phase on how to use his dramatic palette to telling effect. The work depicts the Egyptian Queen in her final moments after inducing a cobra to bite her. Unfortunately, the jury was taken aback by the sheer intensity of the music and no first prize was awarded that year.

Without doubt, John Nelson is today considered as the finest Berliozian, and with this recording he further enhances his reputation with an interpretation overflowing with passion and flair, where his transitions from darkness to light are handled with exemplary assurance.

Listen — Berlioz: Allegro vivace con impeto (Cléopâtre)
(5054197481383 CD2 track 5, 0:00-0:59) ℗ 2023 Ascanio's Purse :

For this new release Nelson continues the fruitful relationship with the Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg, his choice for previous recordings of Les Troyens and La Damnation de Faust, and according to critic Brian Robins: 'Nelson's ability to inspire his orchestra to playing of the greatest fervour and sensitivity is a cause of the deepest admiration'.

All three soloists and the two choirs serve this exceptional music with unbridled commitment and often searing intensity, while consistently keeping a great authority on change of tempi and dynamics.

La Mort de Cléopâtre and Joyce DiDonato seem to be made for each other. Indeed, it was with this work that DiDonato marked her debut at the annual Berlioz Festival staged in the composer's birthplace, La Côte-Saint-André, south east of Lyon. She loves Berlioz and is a fiery exponent of his music. In her Cléopâtre on this recording Joyce becomes Cléopâtre, and the latter's death is portrayed with heart-wrenching agony. Indeed, her exceptional vocal powers are here deployed with the skill of a supreme tragedienne.

Listen — Berlioz: Allegro assai agitato (Cléopâtre)
(5054197481383 CD2 track 8, 1:51-2:42) ℗ 2023 Ascanio's Purse :

Thrilling - Electrifying - Ecstatic. Do not sin against the beauty of great music. Just get it.

Copyright © 22 May 2023 Gerald Fenech,
Gzira, Malta



 << Home              Next review >>