Quite why Naxos has delayed this title for so long is anyone’s guess (similarly a recent issue of Leonard Slatkin’s Aaron Copland coupling, also from 2014). The dates of these Lyon sessions are clear enough, as is the 12 April 2019 release date.
Housekeeping aside, here are three plays from William Shakespeare’s quill that so inspired Hector Berlioz’s creativity – Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Beatrice and Benedict, okay, Benedick (the latter characters from Much Ado About Nothing) – and in addition to this trio of the Frenchman’s Shakespearean Superbs, there are also his representations of The Tempest (included in Lélio), Ophelia, and Hamlet.
Of the Overtures, that to Béatrice et Bénédict (Berlioz’s final opera) is deftly traversed with flair and fondness (and an ear for the piccolo). It’s an adorable piece, Berlioz at his most mercurial, wistful, spring-heeled and insouciant, whereas King Lear is great theatre, more a symphonic poem than the composer’s designated Concert Overture, informed here by sonorous strings, dramatic cut and thrust, and with lyricism that is aflame, including a long-lined melody that stays with you and for which Slatkin mercifully avoids dragging phrase-ends; one of Romantic Music’s glories.
As for the main offering, Roméo gets off to an arresting start with a properly combative ‘Introduction’ representing the fighting houses of the Montagues and the Capulets, although the trombones are a little reticent from 0’57”; that said, soon after the brass fanfares are nicely portentous and scene-setting (although bassoons are somewhat lost), but this points to the sound-quality; while generally immediate and vivid there can be a tendency for bass frequencies to coagulate at the expense of brighter treble ones, a beefy bass rather than an explicit one can be the result, and the perspective is apt to be somewhat inconsistent, and there are a couple of undisguised edits. These are small points, however.
There is much to admire artistically, and for all that Roméo is one of Berlioz’s greatest achievements, it is not totally miraculous. Usually I find, once past the warring opening, that the Strophes go on a while (although I won’t harp on about it); but not here, a tribute to the choruses named Spirito and that carrying the moniker of Bernard Tétu (intonation spot-on, not least in a cappella passages, or near-to given Berlioz’s sometimes sparse scoring, and bulging with identity) and also to Marion Lebègue, their collective poetic expressiveness opening things up, embracing Slatkin’s affection for Berlioz’s inimitable invention. Lebègue and Julien Behr don’t have much to do, and he is notably agile in the ‘Scherzetto’, virtuoso and word-conscious singing; by the way, Naxos’s booklet includes not only an introductory essay to these works but also Deschamps’s French text and an English translation of it.
Once past the vocal preliminaries, Berlioz becomes orchestra-centric for a lonely and sad Romeo, a party courtesy of the Capulets (Juliet’s brethren), a serene if burgeoning love episode and the remarkable ‘Queen Mab (Scherzo)’. All are handsomely brought off, Slatkin not so much conducting the music as communing with it – gate-crashing the ball with musically articulate gusto (I'm pleased to report an ideal skin-side tambourine hit at 4’49”, track 7, one of my train-spotter moments in this movement, although the very end of it is slightly gabbled) and in total sympathy with the star-crossed titular couple in the ‘Scène d’amour’, rapt and spacious, illicit friendship by moonlight, glowing, palpitating and soaring, turned eloquently, and, as music, winning Wagner’s approval. The singular Queen Mab (the lightest and most painstakingly pin-pointed of such ethereal gems, almost computer-generated if created by human hand, pen on paper) is delightfully elfin-like and spectral, and with nicely contrasted horns (such exposure not fazing the players) and some telling dynamics.
Perhaps the most forward-looking music in Roméo (akin to Tristan and to late Liszt) occurs in Part Three, in which Berlioz shoots past 1839, the year of Roméo’s completion (he’d been infatuated with Shakespeare’s story, and Juliet-actress Harriet Smithson, for more than a decade since she appeared in Paris in the role; Harriet and Hector married) and lands nearer the twentieth-century in terms of musical innovation, harmonic strangeness and very particular orchestration – ‘Juliet’s Funeral Procession’ (with the strewing of flowers) very intense, choirs excelling, and the naked and bewildered emotions of ‘Romeo at the Capulet tomb’, Lyon players inspired. When it comes to the final set-piece, Friar Laurence’s speech of reconciliation, it can be thought protracted, but with Slatkin’s judicious tempos and Frédéric Caton as a vibrant presence, compassionate and imposing, no such longueur is apparent, and the choral conclusion is roof-raising.
A few reservations then, just a few – and Berlioz-performance cannot be discussed without at least a mention for Colin Davis’s lifetime championing of this music (or, for Roméo, Boulez/Cleveland complete on DG, or Giulini/Chicago for orchestral selections or, similarly compiled, Maazel/Berlin) –; however, this Slatkin/Lyon survey is certainly a fitting contribution to Berlioz 150 and is also a set of renditions to appreciate at this time and return to with keen anticipation.