Of Madness and Love
The booklet’s claim ‘inspired by William Shakespeare’ is only really true of the Roméo et Juliette excerpt and the Lear Overture (and even that has been disputed). But the mini violin concerto Rêverie – seductively played here by the Basel orchestra’s Korean concertmaster – was probably inspired by Berlioz’s troubles with the Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson and has some musical relationship with his Roméo. There was of course a Shakespeare Antony and Cleopatra, but Berlioz’s setting uses Pierre-Ange Vieillard’s composition text for the Prix de Rome of 1829 on the Egyptian queen’s dying words, written in the nouveau Racine style.
It is in some ways a pity that the latter work takes pride of place in this recital of (mostly) still not too well-known works. The Prix’s judges were probably expecting some well-organised and essentially platform-bound recitation of regal grief. They got two full-on operatic scenes of psychological breakdown with (in the ‘Méditation’) a running Boléro-like build-up towards a literally evoked death by snakebite. Up against intense competition from Janet Baker, Véronique Gens and Anna Caterina Antonacci – to name three favourites of varying timbres – Vesselina Kasarova sounds a little out of sorts. Despite undoubted dramatic input (the climax around Cleopatra’s defeat at Actium in the first-movement Allegro vivace), her French is muddy and, as caught here, some of the solo’s large range sounds too high for her comfort and pinpoint accuracy.
The orchestra – its range of colour extended by natural horns, trumpets and trombones and ‘historic’ timpani – plays wonderfully well for Bolton throughout the programme. A dark and moody ‘Scène d’amour’ from Roméo really emphasises the composer’s radicalism in setting one of literature’s great exchanges of passion without human voices and words – a kind of reverse of the direction Wagner was moving in. A worthwhile booklet interview with the conductor traces details of what he calls Berlioz’s ‘experimental and at the same time precise’ instrumentation.
Hear this release for the programme and for Ivor Bolton’s and his orchestra’s contribution; look elsewhere for the cantata.