Search - Thomas Allen, Hector Berlioz, Colin Davis :: Berlioz Edition (Box Set)

Berlioz Edition (Box Set)
Thomas Allen, Hector Berlioz, Colin Davis
Berlioz Edition (Box Set)
Genre: Classical
Sir Colin Davis has long been considered the world's finest Berlioz conductor, and over the years, Philips has released all of the composer's major works with Davis at the helm. Now, they're all here, in a 24-CD box, and i...  more »


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Sir Colin Davis has long been considered the world's finest Berlioz conductor, and over the years, Philips has released all of the composer's major works with Davis at the helm. Now, they're all here, in a 24-CD box, and it is an astonishing achievement. This treasure trove consists of the definitive, available readings of Les Troyens, Béatrice et Bénédict, and Benvenuto Cellini; a wonderfully energetic, passionate Roméo et Juliette; a Te Deum which is huge yet clear and not over-the-top for its own sake; Les Nuits d'été with different singers (of varying ranges in different songs), as Berlioz wanted them performed; the young Dame Janet Baker superb in Herminie and La Mort de Cléopatre; a relaxed, sweet Enfance du Christ; a Requiem which could knock you over; a Damnation de Faust which is both lyrical and exciting; a performance of Lélio which almost makes sense of that strange work; a Symphonie Fantastiquewith atmosphere and thrills; along with 7 overtures, 5 songs, and more. In addition to the moderate price, the packaging is such that the 24 CDs takes up less space than just the earlier releases of Cellini and Troyens together. This is one-stop shopping at its best. --Robert Levine

CD Reviews

Definitive modern performances of all Berlioz's masterpieces
Michael Schell | | 01/09/2010
(5 out of 5 stars)

"This album features the recorded Berlioz legacy of Colin Davis on Philips. It consists of three smaller Berlioz/Davis box sets crammed (very tightly) into a cardboard bookcase sleeve. These three compilations are Complete Orchestral Works (6 CDs), Complete Operas (9 CDs with the three mature operas) and a third set of Sacred Music, Symphonic Dramas and Orchestral Songs (9 CDs with The Damnation of Faust, the Requiem, Te Deum, L'enfance du Christ, and other vocal works with orchestra). Annoyingly, this arrangement results in two major duplications. The 1968 recording of Romeo and Juliet takes up two CDs in both the Complete Orchestral Works set AND the "Symphonic Dramas" set. Likewise, Davis's 1980 recording of Lélio shows up once in each set, so this ostensibly 24 CD album includes 2½ CDs' worth of duplicate content. And though texts to the sacred works and orchestral songs are provided, your French had better be serviceable, since there are no translations given (and no texts at all for the operas). Thumbs down to Philips for these unfortunate gaffes.

But that's it for the bad news. A big thumbs up goes to Philips for the content, and for the commitment to Davis's recorded Berlioz legacy from the 1960s through the early 1980s. Thumbs up also for the opportunity to assemble it all "under one roof", especially if you can find the album at a discounted price (if not a bargain price of the sort associated with similar sets from Philips, EMI and occasionally even Deutsche Grammophon). Indeed this is an almost complete set of Berlioz's surviving compositions. All his major works are recorded here, and so are many minor ones. With the Amazon listing providing details on the contents, I'll try to list the principal "missing" items from Berlioz's extant oeuvre:

* Some surviving fragments of the early opera Les francs-juges (the overture does make an appearance)
* Some of the early Prix de Rome cantatas
* The early Messe Solenelle
* The complete Tristia (only the Hamlet funeral march appears)
* The Greek Revolution
* The Rob Roy overture, understandably omitted since it was withdrawn by Berlioz
* Eight scenes from Faust
* Various other choral works and non-orchestral songs, including Sara la baigneuse, 5th of May, Hymne à la France, Railroad Song, and the arrangement of La Marseillaise

As you can see from the list, Berlioz was practically unique among Romantic composers in writing both symphonies and operas, but no piano or chamber music! He was a maverick in other respects as well, and is often held out as a pioneer of the "modern orchestra" (large ensemble sizes, valved brass instruments, etc.). As a composer, he is generally held to be on the second tier of the great Romantic figures, a rung or so down from giants like Beethoven, Brahms and (more controversially) Wagner, but with an edge over most of the Nationalists (Grieg, Smetana, Rimsky-Korsakov, etc.). Berlioz is probably also the consensus choice for the most important French composer between the Baroque era and Debussy (bearing in mind that Franck was Belgian by our standards). The only serious competition for that accolade would seem to be Bizet or one of the other opera composers.

Beyond that, though, feelings about his music tend to vary, understandably so given his eccentric combination of unconventional phrasing, advanced orchestration, a Romantic outlook toward aesthetics, theater and musical form, and a mainly Classical-era sensibility toward harmony. Some people really like the color and unpredictability of his music. Others feel he lacked the melodic gift of a Tchaikovsky, the harmonic gift of a Beethoven, or the dramatic gift of a Wagner, resulting in an overall mediocrity. A few of his works, such as the Symphonie Fantastique and his arrangement of the Rákóczi March, have achieved iconic status and are popular even outside the circles of confirmed Berlioz fans. I personally have always been ambivalent about his work, struggling with the Beethoven-like complexity of form supporting melodic content dominated by an insistent and typically French lyricism. But I'm happy to have all his important works available to me in one attractive album, through the largesse of one of his most prestigious interpreters. Colin Davis was at the forefront of the mid-century Berlioz craze/revival, and is credited with stripping away the mid-20th Century adaptations of most Berlioz performances, even reintroducing modern copies of Berlioz's cornet and ophicleide where possible. Most of the Davis cycle features the LSO, John Alldis Choir, Royal Opera and a core of vocal soloists including British stars like Janet Baker, Robert Tear, Thomas Allen and Robert Lloyd, with the Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda making significant appearances as Faust and Benvenuto Cellini.

Since the component recording in this album have been reviewed elsewhere (they're all reissues after all), I'll just note a few highlights, like the whimsy to the 7/4 passage in L'enfance du Christ, or the beautiful deep bass voice of Rouleau as the family patriarch in that same work, welcoming the fleeing Joseph and Mary preparatory to a choral fugue from this supposedly non-contrapuntally oriented composer. The Damnation of Faust features Nicolai Gedda's compelling interpretation of the title role, and the LSO Chorus takes the place of the otherwise ubiquitous John Alldis Choir on this justifiably acclaimed recording. The symphonies acquit themselves well in these interpretations, which marked the standard for performances of Berlioz on modern instruments. Check out the C major passage that begins about 2/3 of the way into the Pilgrims' March from Harold in Italy, and you'll hear the origin of practically any work by Alan Hovhaness (especially if you remove the solo viola arpeggios, leaving the walking bass beneath the sustained chorale chords that alternate between woodwinds and upper strings). It was thrilling to listen to the Grande Symphonie funèbre et triomphale for the first time in 20 years. This is probably the only substantial band piece written by a major 19th Century composer, though Davis does use the optional cellos and basses in the first movement (not heard until the recapitulation) and the optional strings and bombastic chorus parts in the third movement. Davis also uses cymbals for the instrument marked "cinelli" in the Breitkopf & Härtel edition (some say Berlioz had a Jiggling Johnny in mind). Perhaps the only general regret I have about these recordings is the reliance on great, but nevertheless non-native French speakers in the lead roles of the vocal works (e.g., Jon Vickers cracking a prominent note in Les Troyans).

I'm impressed with the cleanliness and detail in the analog-to-digital conversion of these recordings from a few decades ago. The string bowing sounds particularly crisp in works like the Symphonie Fantastique. The CD sleeves are stiff cardboard, except for the set devoted to orchestral works, where they're paper. I guess this helps keep the two sets of Romeo and Juliet recordings separate. Balance out this set with one or two historically informed performances from Norrington and Gardiner, and you'll get the best of both the modern and HIP approaches to Berlioz. If you're not interested in the operas, an intriguing alternative to this set is the Deutsche Grammophon set which is half the size (no operas), about the same price per CD (as I write this in early 2010), and features a variety of performers recorded with newer technology. Take your pick, set aside a few evenings to work through the CDs, and enjoy pondering the career of this intriguing and distinctive composer."