These period Berlioz performances are superb
Mike Birman | Brooklyn, New York USA | 09/15/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"English conductor Roger Norrington had just completed his assault on Beethoven's Symphonies and Piano Concertos, recording them on period instruments in the 1980's and revealing that he had just two speeds: Fast and "Captain, you're gonna explode the warp core!" The "Authentic Performance" movement had reached and dashed through the Classical era, garnering alot of attention from the critics. Norrington next set his sights on the Romantic era, naturally choosing the arch-Romantic French composer, Hector Berlioz. He recorded the Symphonie Fantastique in 1988 and the performance really was revelatory. John Eliot Gardiner followed suit shortly thereafter. What made his performances of Berlioz even more significant was/is that he, Gardiner, is a Berlioz scholar with an instinctive feel for this composer. This important DVD contains two recordings of more than historical interest: the Symphonie Fantastique in its original 1830 orchestration performed in the old hall of the Paris Conservatoire, where its first performances were given, and the recently discovered Messe Solennelle, composed in 1824 when Berlioz was 20 and whose parts were cast into the fire following the second performance in 1827, the Messe believed lost since then.
In one of those amazing discoveries we all dream about (at least I do), Frans Moors, a schoolteacher living in Antwerp, reported his discovery in 1992 of the manuscript of the Messe among a small collection of miscellaneous music kept in an old oak chest in the organ gallery at the church of Saint Charles Borromeus in Antwerp. An inscription on it helped explain how it got there. Signed "A. Bessems, Paris 1835", Bessems was a Belgian violinist who had played in the second performance of the Messe in 1827 and subsequent Berlioz concerts in 1835. He had been given the manuscript by Berlioz later that year, possibly in lieu of a fee. Following his death in 1868, it was passed down to his brother Joseph, now in charge of the chuch's music, where it remained in that oak chest for more that 120 years.
Berlioz himself used parts of the Messe in subsequent works. The Symphonie Fantastique uses themes from the Messe, making this pairing a natural. The Messe is obviously a young man's work. But it contains pages of great beauty: the Kyrie sounds like Faure might have composed it. It is certainly a harbinger of Berlioz's fresh and original genius. This performance, recorded in an acoustically vibrant Westminster Cathedral in October 1993 with the excellent Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, features soloists soprano Donna Brown, tenor Jean-Luc Viala and bass-baritone Gilles Cachemaille and the Monteverdi Choir. It is a lovely recording: beautifully sung and played.
The Symphonie Fantastique is similarly well played. Although the acoustics are not as vibrant, they are still excellent. The hall is gorgeous. Berlioz on original instruments is a revelation because they heighten the originality of his profoundly creative, even revolutionary, orchestration. The organic, wonderfully earthy sounds he extracts from the orchestra are fascinating. My favorite Berlioz-era instruments are the Serpent (you'll see why this name was used very quickly), a bass brass instrument commonly used in 19th Century French churches to support the voices, and the resplendant ophicleide, an early tuba that brings to mind a whoopee cushion on steroids. The entire orchestra sounds vibrant and unique. You will have to hear it to truly appreciate the difference.
This DVD contains the usual menus and languages. Sound is in PCM stereo, Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1. The multichannel recordings widen the sound field significantly. I especially like the packaging: both the cover and booklet resemble an aged, crinkled and yellowing, long-lost manuscript. It just looks really old. Nice touch.
If Berlioz and original instruments are your cup of tea, this DVD is easily recommended. The performances are superb and the Messe is surprisingly good.
Great idea, disappointing realization
Dean Georgiev | Berlin | 01/29/2008
(3 out of 5 stars)
"I purchased the Berlioz Rediscovered DVD together with the DVD of the BBC film EroicaBeethoven - Eroica / John Eliot Gardiner, Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, where the Orch. Rev. et Romantique also participates. The 2005 Eroica DVD features a full performance of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony with the players in period dress and clearly energized to play this music as if for the first time (the first open rehearsal of the work, with the composer presiding, is the scene of the film). By contrast, Sir John Eliot Gardiner's band looks drab and comparatively unenthusiastic about their 1990's live performance of the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique at the Paris Conservatoire hall where this work was also premiered back in 1830. The players look out of place in their modern concert dress and the filming is relatively unimaginative, perhaps partially as a result of the limitations of the space (the stage is quite narrow and rises sharply) and occasion (concert performance). It is interesting to see the instruments distributed on stage as they were for the 1830 performance, with cellos and basses on risers at rear right, and to hear the work with the instruments that Berlioz had in mind and at his disposal, such as the now-obselete serpent and 6 single-action harps in the second movement. The performance itself is certainly respectable, though Gardiner's conducting skill doesn't seem to match the high level of scholarship I assume his interpretation is backed by. I had hoped for at least an interview with Gardiner as a feature of this DVD, but alas, it contains only the concert performance of the symphony and another of the recently rediscovered early Messe Solennelle, which contains a movement using the main theme from the 3rd mvt of the symphony. This is mentioned in the liner notes, but again, I was hoping for an interview or two or a dramatization of the fascinating genesis of the symphony. The BBC Eroica DVD is a fine example of how such a dramatization could have been done."
Excellent revival of two historic presentations
J.P.E.W. | Ohio | 05/14/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"These works are represented in audio by this orchestra under the same conductor. I believe that the Mass is the same performance as the famous world premier audio production. The symphony however is not the same performance as the Philips cd recording. That makes the dvd more unique.
It is great to see period instruments performing such grand works to the rigorous demands of the flamboyant composer."