Berlioz Béatrice et Bénédict

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Berlioz Béatrice et Bénédict

BERLIOZ Béatrice et Bénédict

  • Béatrice et Bénédict

The Davis/Baker/Tear recording, made for Philips in 1977, is so deservedly well-known and admired that anybody thinking about changing allegiances or buying another version in preference must be urged to think twice. All the same, this new set is a genuine competitor; rather to my own surprise, I am currently finding it the more enjoyable.
The first reason for this may seem an odd one. It is that there is more spoken dialogue. Originally, the abridged talk in Davis's recording had seemed to be a sensible compromise, yet looking back I can see that it had something to do with the partial dissatisfaction expressed in my review of the reissue: ''the total effect is more of a divertissement than of opera-comique''. This is the trouble with compromises; there was enough dialogue to string the musical numbers together, and the abridgement guarded against tedium, but the result it is neither one thing nor the other. The longer stretches of talk heard in this new recording prove not tedious at all. For one thing, there are pleasant reminders of Shakespeare, for another they are spoken stylishly and in character by good French actors, and finally they are really rather necessary. For instance, in the very first passage it gives a much better explanation of what all the excitement is about when a messenger arrives hotfoot telling of the General's return, and then Leonato's account of the habitual ''skirmish of wit'' between Beatrice and Benedict provides the comedy with its starting-point, as in the play itself.
A second reason for preferring this new version is that the cast, while not composed of better singers, is on the whole better suited, character by character, to the roles. Particularly strong and memorable in Davis's cast was the Beatrice of Dame Janet Baker, so much so that listening to Susan Graham in the new recording one often heard, quite involuntarily, a kind of overlay of Dame Janet's voice recalled from the older recording. Yet the beneficent mezzo-soprano voice is not really the ideal instrument, and this soprano has a younger, fresher tone. If impressing less as a 'big' personality she nevertheless has a vivid way of making the developments real and present: for example, at the start of the Act 2 solo, ''que viens-je d'entendre?'', she conveys, still more than Baker, the sense of the overheard talk having happened a minute or two before. Jean-Luc Viala, the Benedict, has a lighter voice than Robert Tear, but it too sounds younger, rather more spry and engagingly nonchalant. The Hero is Sylvia McNair, and she brings a distinct gain, for there is
more tenderness in her ''Je vais le voir'' than in Eda-Pierre's singing, and the joyous mood of ''Il me revient fidele'' comes with more conviction and strength of contrast. Gabriel Bacquier's Somarone, too, is a delight, where his opposite number, Jules Bastin, became quickly tiresome, a crudely blustering figure.
As a piece of recording, the Philips set has one advantage in that it makes best use of the excellent John Alldis Choir and puts them well forward, whereas the perfectly good Lyon Opera Chorus is relegated to the middle distance as usual. Finally—perhaps one should say continuously—there is the comparison between conductors; and here again, rather surprisingly, Davis's tried and proved expertise made less impression than the new but not dissimilar touch brought by John Nelson. The orchestra here is always the commentator, witty, tender, excited and so forth, according to the nimbly changing mood. Perhaps in the matter of excitement Davis and Baker between them had a special way of making the blood dance, but (listen to the Overture, for instance) Nelson achieves a fine clarity of texture and, even more than Davis, he makes the phrases 'speak'.'

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