Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’Eté – a comparative review of ten recordings

Les Nuits d’Eté is one of my favuorite orchestral song cycles and, along with Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder, must be one of the most recorded works for voice and orchestra. The songs were originally written to a piano accompaniment and we don’t know why Berlioz chose these six particular texts by his contemporary, Théophile Gautier. Though not really conceived as a cycle, they do make a satsifying programme with two lighter songs framing three deeply emotional outpourings. Berlioz orchestrated Absence in 1846 then orchestrated the remaining songs in 1853, suggesting a mezzo-soprano or tenor for Villanelle, contralto for Le spectre de la rose, baritone (or optionally mezzo or contralto) for Sur les lagunes, mezzo or tenor for Absence, tenor for Au cimetière and mezzo or tenor for L’île inconnue, though nowadays it is more regularly sung by one singer, usually a mezzo or a soprano. It has been recorded by tenors, baritones and bass-baritones and even countertenors.

They have been recorded umpteen times and Ralph Moore has done an exhaustive comparison of most of these recordings, which I recommend to anyone who loves the songs. You can view it at http://musicweb-international.com/classrev/2019/Aug/Berlioz_nuits_survey.pdf.

I have ten recordings in my collection and these are the ten I listened to over a period of two days. The songs respond to a variety of different approaches and I enjoyed my task immensely.

r-17739049-1615146774-6216.jpeg

Vctoria De Los Angeles recorded the cycle in 1955 with Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, when she was in superb voice. As always there is a great deal of pleasure to be derived from her singing, her tone suitably plaintive in the middle songs and smilingly bright and playful in the outer songs, which, predictably, is where she is most successful. What I miss is a deeper vein of tragedy, something more grandiloquent in the middle songs, where what we need is a touch of Cassandre and Didon. De Los Angeles reminds me more of a Marguerite. She is in warm, velvety voice, and this is nonetheless one of the most satisfying accounts around. Sonically it can’t measure up to any of the later stereo recordings.

r-4226020-1359064159-2900.jpeg

Nor, unfortunately can the Steber version with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the Columbia Symphomy Orchestra. The first impression when listening to this version is of the sheer security and perfect focus of Steber’s beautiful voice. The cycle doesn’t get off to a very impressive start, with Mitropoulos’s too deliberate tempo for Villanelle. It is actually close to the metronome mark of crotchet = 96, but it seems plodding and Mitropoulos fails to make the woodwind light enough. But Steber is gorgeous. She can expand the tone gloriously at a phrase like et parmi la fête étoilée in Le spectre de la rose and the quality remains wonderfully rich down below. Throughout Steber is keenly responisve to the poetry. Au cimetière, for instance, has a real sense of tragic foreboding. What a superb Cassandre she might have been. Definitely a prime contender. If only it had been in better sound.

517nnfbtual._ac_

Now here is something rather different. The countertenor voice is not one you would expect to hear in this music, but David Daniels has always had a velvety, rich sound and his version comes as something of a pleasant surprise, though, more used to hearing him in the music of the Baroque, I did wonder if this version might be a product of the gramophone. He did however sing it in the concert hall and his is a voice I’ve never had trouble hearing in the hall or theatre, so maybe I’m wrong. Daniels has excellent French, a perfect legato and is ideally steady throughout, with a much greater range of tone colour than you would expect from a countertenor. As always, his phrasing is wonderfully musical and John Nelson provides excellent support with the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris. Ultimately, for all his musicality and way of commuicating the text, I’m not sure the countertenor voice is what the songs require, but it is a very interesting experiment which Daniels almost pulls off.

r-10811227-1504704037-6832.jpeg

It was quite a shock to plunge from Daniels to the darkly pungent tones of Agnes Baltsa. Her French is often questionable and the voice and manner are arrestingly individual, with her varying her tone from song to song. I suppose you’d call her approach quite operatic. She adopts an almost coy sexuality for Villanelle, choosing a more Dalila-like sensuality for Le spectre de la rose, languidly eliding some of the phrases. Some might find her plunges into chest voice jarring, but I rather like it. The singing can be a bit rough round the edges but you could never call her dull. Ralph Moore suggests that she brings more than a touch of her Carmen to the songs, and I’d agree. It’s not how I’d always like to hear them, but it’s certainly a very individual and occasionally thrilling take on them. Jeffrey Tate and the London Symphony Orchestra provide excellent support.

r-5824261-1403705173-5318.jpeg

Régine Crespin is the only version included here by a French singer and it is really good to hear the language enunciated so clearly, especially after the idiosyncratic French of someone like Baltsa.

Now Crespin’s version is so famous that it has been a prime recommendation for the work ever since it was first issued in 1963 and dissenting opinions are likley to be viewed with incredulity, but, unlike its coupling of Ravel’s Shéhérazade, I’m not sure the Berlioz holds up that well. For a start, there is a deal of sloppy orchestral playing from L’Orchestre de la Suisse-Romande under Ernest Ansermet, and, for another, Crespin’s singing often tends to the lugubrious. There is no sense of mounting rapture at the arrival of the rose, no sense of despair in Sur les lagunes, no plaintive yearning in Absence. The singing is altogether too civilised, and, however musical and tasteful her singing , however elegant her phrasing, Crespin remains aloof and uninvolved. She is at the oppoiste pole from Baltsa’s often wild and wayward version, but I miss Baltsa’s dramatic involvement, which I ultmately prefer. I see that I’m not alone in my opinion, which is supported by both Ralph Moore and David Cairns (in Song on Record, Volume II). A controversial opinion, no doubt, but I’m sticking to it. Crespin is most successful in the final song, which responds to her vocal equivalent of the ironically arched eyebrow. Another mark against her is that she unaccountably alters the order of the songs, placing Absence before Sur les lagunes, which destroys the balance of the cycle. Intonation is occasionally suspect too, especially in Au cometière.

r-5925026-1621620398-8177.jpeg

Colin Davis’s multi-singer version is something of an inconclusive experiment. However ineresting it is to hear the songs sung more or less by the voices Berlioz suggested, I think the cycle hangs together better when captured by a single voice. Nor do any of the singers challenge the best of other versions by single singers. Frank Patterson, who has a rather whiny, nasal timbre is granted two songs, Villanelle and Au cimetiére, neither of which he does justice to. Josephine Veasey, an appreciable Berlioz singer, sings a plausible Le spectre de la rose without really illuminating it, and John Shirley-Quirk tends to growl in the lower regions of Sur les lagunes. The most successful of the singers is soprano Sheila Armstrong, who sings in excellent French and turns in a nicely plaintive Absence as well as a charmingly flirtatious L’île inconnue. One would expect Sir Colin and the London Symphony Orchestra to give a brilliant version of the score, but the effect is somewhat somnolent and low key. Interesting but inconclusive.

r-8458350-1462019569-7396.jpeg

Next we come to the wonderful Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, recorded live at a concert in 1991 or 1995 (the booklet isn’t entirely clear on this point). It has to be said that the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra under Nicholas McGegan are not quite up to the standard of the ensembles in some of these performances, but they nonetheless provide sensitive accompaniment to Hunt Lieberson’s superbly detailed and deeply heartfelt performances. Throughout she is totally inside the music, her response to the poetry seeming totally spontaneous and natural. Unerringly she captures the mood of each song, certain phrases remaining etched on the memory, for instance the blank, desparing tone at the end of Au cimetière, which, though  she switches to smilingly insouciant joy for L’île inconnue, creeps back into her tone for the closing measures when she reminds us that not all is happy au pays d’amour. The voice is surpassingly beautiful, the singing intensely concentrated and she communicates so much. What a great loss she was to the musical world.

r-15146607-1589535837-3883.jpeg

Finally, I come to three versions by the great Dame Janet Baker. The most recent ( recorded in 1990) and the one I will discuss first, was one of her last (maybe her last ever) recording. made shorly after she had retired from the concert platform. By this time her great artistry cannot quite hide the hint of strain in the upper reaches, the discoloration on certain vowels and the loosening of vibrations on sustained high notes. In no way is this competitive with her two other vesions (one live under Giulini and the famous studio one under Barbirolli), so I will only comment by saying I heard Baker and Hickox perform the cycle not long before this recording was made and, live and in the concert hall, it was still an amazing experience.

r-9879493-1487856491-9833.jpeg

The live Giulini account, taken from a concert at the Royal Festiva Hall in 1975, must be amongst the slowest on disc and it is remarkable that Baker can sustain these speeds; but sustain them she does, luxuriating in the added breadth that Giulini gives her, her breath control quite astonishing. The recorded sound is a trifle muddy and we hear the occasional coughs that go along with live music making, but the specificity of her response to the text is quite extraordinary and there is a concentrated intensity about this performance, which is no doubt enhanced by the presence of a live audience. If I continue to prefer the studio performance, that could be because it is the one by which I got to know the songs and it is no doubt imprinted on my brain. It also, of course enjoys better sound. Both interpretations are absolutely and unequivocally superb. Baker’s stage roles included both Cassandre and Didon and she brings something of the character of their music to these songs too.

r-8436535-1461577724-3437.jpeg

Baker enjoyed a very special relationship with Sir John Barbirolli and of course made a few important recordings with him before he died in 1970.  Apart from the above recording of Ravel and Berlioz they can be heard in famous recordings of Elgar’s Sea Pictures,  Mahler’s three orchestral song cycles and Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, all very special and irreplaceable.

The New Philharmonia are in fine form and provide some of the best orchestral playing on any of these performances. Villanelle is perhaps a little too determinedly jolly, but after that the performance just gets better and better. Baker starts Le spectre de la rose almost confidingly, as if whispering into the ear of the sleeping girl, swelling into the glorious mini climax at Et parmi le fête étoilée, Tu me promenas tout le soir. Her tone turns both sensual and erotic when the rose arrives from paradise, and then she sings the phrase Mon destin fut digne d’envie in one glorious, long breath. This might just be the most wonderful performance of the song ever put down on record.

From there we are plunged into the blank, desparing tone of Ma belle amie est morte. If she were the Act IV Didon in the previous song here she is Cassandre, singing in stark absolutes. Having reached a desolate climax the song fades away in a whispered close of utter dejection. She yearns sweetly in Absence, the voice taking on a soprano-ish lightness in the upper register, but maintaining its tragic depth for the line Ah, grands désirs inappaisées. Au cimetière is mesmerisingly hypnotic, conjuring up ghostly visions of graveyards at night, until finally gloom is dispelled and a smile enters her voice for L’île inconnue, with a coquettish twinkle on Est-ce dans la Baltique?

After listening to ten different recordings in two days, I find I love the cycle more than ever and all these recordings have something to offer.  I actually enjoyed them all. However if I had to choose but one  on that proverbial desert island, then it would have to be Baker with Barbirolli, though I’d probably find a way to smuggle the Hunt Lieberson with me as well somehow.

De Los Angeles as Manon

51n11kghrxl

Sir Thomas Beecham once quipped,

I would give the whole of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos for Massenet’s Manon and would think that I had profited by the exchange

He was proabably only half serious, but I’ve always preferred Massenet’s setting of L’Abbé Prévost’s novel to Puccini’s. The Puccini tends to over-sentimentalise, where Massenet is much closer to the source material. Admittedly Massenet has Manon die before the couple sail to America, but in all other respects I’ve always felt that Massenet is much closer to the spirit of the original novel, and shows him in complete mastery of his craft, whereas Puccini’s opera is the work of a less experienced composer.

This classic  1955 recording has never really been bettered, and captures a style of performance practice you would never come across in today’s more international climate. Monteux, who conducted the work many times in the theatre, had the score in his bones as did his Opéra-Comique resources, and cast of French singers. The only non French singer is Manon herself, in the shape of Victoria De Los Angeles, who was nevertheless totally at home in French music, and well known the world over for her portrayal of Manon. She is unrivalled at conveying both the childlike innocence and worldly sensuality of the heroine, and she is here at her vocal best. Henri Legay might be considered a little too light of voice for Des Grieux, but he sings with elegance and style, and is totally convincing at suggesting the youth’s inexperience as well as his passion and obsession. The rest of the cast is as well nigh ideal as you could get, which leaves the small matter of the sound. EMI’s transfer is somewhat harsh and shrill, though it didn’t deter me from enjoying the set. It has also been reissued on Naxos and Testament, but I haven’t heard either of those, so can’t comment on whether they are any better.

Il Trittico with Gobbi and De Los Angeles

This isn’t a complete recording of Il Trittico. Admittedly all the operas use Rome forces, but each opera is led by a different conductor, and they were all originally issued at different times. The first two, released respectively in 1956 and 1958 are mono, but Gianni Schicchi, released in 1959 is stereo. The only unifying element is that De Los Angeles and Gobbi both appear in two out of the three operas. Still, it was useful and inevitable that the individual releases would eventually be grouped together and, as far as I’m aware, they have not been available singly since.

115770328

Bellezza’s conducting is efficient rather than inspired and the recording is a bit muddy, but this recording of Puccini’s terse piece of grand guignolIl Tabarro, has at its heart one towering performance in the Michele of Tito Gobbi, a characterisation fit to set next to his Scarpia and Rigoletto. Not only is the role powerfully sung, but we see deep into the man’s tortured soul, the violence bubbling beneath. In no other studio performance of the opera do we feel Michele’s pain with quite such terrifying immediacy.

None of the other singers is on his level, but they are apt enough for their roles. Margaret Mas, a singer who appears to have done nothing else on record, sounds a bit mature, but that suits the role of Giorgetta well enough, as does the slightly raw tone of Giacinto Prandelli’s Luigi. The smaller roles are all well characterised, but it is Gobbi who puts the seal on this recording.

r-15484063-1592553930-2863.jpeg

This has always been my least favourite of the triptych, as I find its over-sentimentalised quasi religiosity a bit too much for my taste. However it is difficult not to resist such generous hearted sincerity as we get here from the adorable Victoria De Los Angeles, superbly supported by the veteran Tullio Serafin, who doesn’t overdo the sentimentality. Fedora Barbieri presents a truly magisterial and implacable Zia Principessa, aristocratic, cold and dispassionate in her treatment of Angelica.

However even in a performance as committed as this, the ending stretches my suspension of disbelief just a bit too far and ultimately I prefer the sense of repressed passion and sexuality implied in the Scotto/Maazel version, which plays out almost like a scene from Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus. In their hands, Angelica’s final vision comes across more as a drug-fueled hallucination, which helps to ameliorate my problems with the piece.

On the other hand I wouldn’t want to be without De Los Angeles’ beautifully sung and characterised Angelica. She is a little stretched by the highest reaches of the role, but in general the voice sounds absolutely lovely and her singing is as musical as ever.

r-3214102-1320768570.jpeg

Verdi had his Falstaff and Puccini had his Gianni Schicchi, though Puccini’s comedy is a lot blacker and more cruel than Verdi’s.

Gobbi was brilliant in both comic roles of course, but he presents two very different characters. His Falstaff was all genial bluster, a lovable rogue, where his Schicchi is a clever schemer, with more than a touch of the venal tempered by a genuine love and affection for his daughter.

This is probably one of the best things Santini did for the gramophone, and the performance is superbly paced, with wonderfully pointed characterisations from the supporting cast, the libretto so crisply delivered that you can all but taste the words. I find myself chuckling out loud quite a few times. Carlo Del Monte might seem a bit light of voice, but for once Rinuccio sounds like the young man he is supposed to be, and Victoria De Los Angeles is simply adorable as Lauretta – none better on disc.

Gobbi recorded the role again towards the end of his career (under Maazel, with Domingo as Rinuccio and Cotrubas as Lauretta), but this one, the only one of the operas in this set to be recorded in stereo, remains my first choice.

Victoria De Los Angeles sings Chants D’Auvergne

 

Many of my generation will no doubt have got to know Canteloube’s gorgeous arrangements of Auvergne folk songs through the recordings of Victoria De Los Angeles. On LP I only had the first album recorded in 1969, which had a selection of songs on one side and her recording of Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer on the other, but this reissue couples only the Canteloube songs to the second all Canteloube album entitled Pastorale and recorded in 1974. Some might also remember that famous Dubonnet advert which used an arrangement of the gorgeous Baïlèro, lazily and yearningly sensuous in the performance under review. I can’t now think of this song without the De Los Angeles version coming into my mind’s ear.

De Los Angeles is in many ways the songs’ ideal interpreter, steering a sort of midway course between the more abrasive style of Madeleine Grey and the senusality of Anna Moffo. She has great fun with the colourful language and folk elements, exuding the bright eyed charm for which she is famous, but is also wonderfully expressive in the more melancholy songs, and the Lamoureux Orchestra under Jean-Pierre Jacquillat provide excellent support, all bathed in a warm acoustic.

There are now a lot of recordings of these songs out there (when the first album was released, I’m pretty sure there were only the early recordings of the aforementioned Madeleine Grey, a small selection by Anna Moffo and a couple of discs on the Vanguard label by Netania Davrath) and there are now a lot more sets out there by the likes of Kiri Te Kanawa, Jill Gomez, Dawn Upshaw, Véroniqe Gens, Frederica Von Stade and others, and all of them have their attractions, but these performances by De Los Angeles will always have a special place in my heart.