BERLIOZ Les Troyens – Davis
It is good to have so many of Sir Colin Davis's classic trail-blazing performances in his Philips Berlioz series transferred to CD, but none is more welcome than this, the most important pillar of all in the great project. It is significant that no one has yet tried to follow Davis in a rival complete recording, and though a re-hearing pin-points a few reservations over the singing, the remarkable thing is how fresh the whole set sounds, not just in the performance but in the recording too. As in other CD transfers of Philips recordings of this vintage, the excellence of the balancing and definition strike you vividly, amply making up for the hints of tape-hiss or the slight glassy edge on high violins which tell you it is not a modern recording. The placing within a believable stage is far firmer than in most digital recordings of the 1980s with their use of multi-track techniques. Added to that the opera—unlike Wagner's—fits like a glove on to four CDs, with not a single act divided between discs. So Act 1 comes complete on the first disc; Act 2 (completing ''La prise de Troie'') and Act 3 (the start of ''Les Troyens a Carthage'') on the exceptionally long second disc (71 minutes). Acts 4 and 5 then fit easily, one each on the remaining two discs.
The division within the discs is first-rate too with each of Berlioz's numbered sections in the through-composed score banded and one or two indexing points added when a number begins with quasi-recitative and leads to a cavatina or aria. One major fault of the booklet, nice and chubby at 324 pages, is that it and the outer box contain no cast-list, just a list of the 15 solo singers. It is easy enough to work out who sings what role in most instances, but I had forgotten which way round it was between Ian Partridge and Ryland Davies in the roles of Iopas and Hylas, both superbly done incidentally. If purchasers do not already have the LP set, I suggest they copy out the details from our heading above. Another irritating little fault is that Josephine Veasey's name is incorrectly spelt on the box, but curiously not in the otherwise identical covers of the booklet and the jewel-case.
On the performance what above all strikes me afresh, in addition to the biting mastery of Davis as conductor pacing the music to a nicety, is the singing of Josephine Veasey as Dido. Her assumption of the role is a glorious achievement, and though even at the time there were others, notably Dame Janet Baker, whom one would also have loved to hear in a complete ''Trojans'' (Dame Janet's 1969 recording of the final scene tantalized one the more—now available on a three-record LP set. HMV SLS5275, 2/83), Veasey's is a searchingly intense and beautifully sung reading that perfectly matches Davis's fresh and powerful conducting. Poetry is there too, and the build-up in sensuousness in the numbers leading to the love duet of Act 4 ( ''Nuit d'ivresse'' indeed!) is superbly achieved. I was specially thrilled to hear again the glorious duet between Dido and her sister, Anna, with Heather Begg blending beautifully with Veasey in their chains of thirds, so different from the conventional thirds of a Bellini duet, yet superficially similar.
By contrast there is not enough blending of tone between Veasey and Jon Vickers in the love duet, but that is very much a question of natural vocal timbres, and otherwise, though his French is odd with its heavily rolled r's and the occasional coarsening, Vickers gives a marvellously heroic performance. Berit Lindholm makes a strong Cassandra, but there one really does long at times for a more tender and vulnerable sound, less hard-toned. And if Peter Glossop as Corebus is rather gritty, I have been delighted what dark, firm sounds Roger Soyer produces both as Narbal and the Spirit of Hector. The placing and occasionally the movement of voices on the stage always adds to the vividness of the experience, the more so on CD, and it is more a musical reservation—not quite a long enough pause—that has me feeling that the clash of arms within the Trojan Horse does not quite make the impact it might during the great march scene in Act 2. But reservations are minimal compared with the joy of having such a historic, richly enjoyable set available in the new medium. No Berlioz enthusiast should hesitate.'