Berlioz Harold 5419719685

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Les nuits d’été, Op. 7 (1856 version)
Harold en Italie, Op. 16 (1834)
Michael Spyres (tenor)
Timothy Ridout (viola)
Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg/John Nelson
rec. 2021, Salle Erasmé, Palais de la Musique et des Congrès, Strasbourg
French texts only
ERATO 5419719685 [73]

I will admit to approaching this new recital of Berlioz’s “song cycle” – which in truth, it isn’t really, the songs being only loosely connected, if at all – with some trepidation. My experience of singers making forays into repertoire requiring them to sing in different vocal registers has not been especially positive; I cite as an example Jonas Kaufmann’s ill-advised ego-trip in singing all the songs in Mahler Das Lied von der Erde. A singer’s Fach and vocal range is determined by the size of the vocal cords and larynx, and to venture beyond it, once the proper category has been established, can be both risky and aesthetically unpleasant. There are exceptions: Caruso, for example, had an exceptionally dark tenor colouring in his low notes and could, when Andrés de Segurola whispered that he had lost his voice, step in and sing (with his back to the audience while de Segurola mimed) the bass aria “Vecchia zimarra” in La Bohème such that nobody – not even the critics – noticed, and he even went on to record that aria successfully – but Caruso was just that: an exception.

Of course, singers have long migrated between vocal registers according to the stage of their career; it is quite common for a mezzo-soprano to move up into the soprano repertoire and then drop back again; Ramón Vinay began as a baritone, moved into the dramatic/Heldentenor category then reverted to baritone a few years before his retirement – but in general, a singer is not usually equally successful in both phase of his or her career and very often the reason might also be because he or she began in the wrong voice type in the first place.

Les nuits d’été usually requires two different singers unless transpositions are made to suit just one but Michael Spyres here chooses to sing the orchestrated, 1856 versions of in their original, untransposed keys, meaning that the second and third songs require a lower voice than the other four. He evidently considers himself suited to the challenge of singing all six songs, as he recently released what he called a “baritenor” album of arias. In this, he was following the aging Domingo’s example – not, in my judgement, a good one as I insist that Domingo has none of the requisite baritone heft, resonance or timbre in his lower range and simply sounds wrong. That recital met with more acclaim from my fellow reviewers than I felt able to accord it, as for me the element of gimmickry was too apparent (see the reviews by MCPCGST and me). PCG expresses some concern about an element of strain appearing in Spyre’s voice and to my ears his tenor has of late acquired an increasingly constricted rather plaintive, tone which is instantly confirmed by his singing of the first song here in an account not enhanced by conductor John Nelson’s inaptly lugubrious choice of tempo.

Spyres begins the second song in a throaty baritone which suddenly changes colour in the second stanza on the line beginning “Et parmi la fête étoilée” into that of a slightly squeezed tenor timbre which has nothing of the echt baritone quality about it. It is true that a good tenor should have full, baritonal low notes if his voice is properly developed; Del Monaco, like Caruso, had them – yet his speaking voice, like that of Jon Vickers, was unexpectedly light – and they should not be produced at the expense of a proper open, ringing, pharyngeal tenorial top. The third song, “Sur les lagunes” is more convincing; the opening is nicely resonant and as the tessitura of the song is lower the vocal colour is more uniform throughout and he manages the low E on “linceul”.

Thus the opening of the fourth song, “Absence”, crooned in a mixed falsetto, comes to my ears as an unpleasant shock. Yes; it sounds like a completely different voice but not an attractive one – until the words “La fleur de ma vie” when suddenly the baritone colouring returns, only to disappear again in the weak delivery of the repeat of “Reviens, reviens”; this is almost a form of interpretative yodelling. The same whining voice is maintained for the opening of “Au cimetière”; to me this is simply aesthetic misjudgement and poor singing. “Et qu’on voudrait entendre” is horribly constricted and the crooning of “Un air comme en soupire aux cieux/ L’ange amoureux” onwards is not proper singing at all. The last song is in the piercing, throaty “pseudo-tenor” voice beloved of those who embrace the worst of the English tenor aesthetic typified by Peter Pears and Robert Tear. A love of this kind of sound is what is gradually strangling the art of operatic singing and lies behind the increasing dearth of voices capable of doing justice to the music written for large, properly developed voices.

For vindication of my response, I turn to a tenor singing this music who might not be perfect but who at least sings the songs allocated to him in a properly registered manner: Stuart Burrows for Pierre Boulez in 1976 – and I refer you to my assessment of this recording my survey of the work. His tone is plangent but firm and virile; he sings sweetly and sometimes even employs falsetto but eschews the manner which mars Spyres’ effete singing. Two other tenors whose vocal affect in this music I find similarly objectionable are Frank Patterson for Colin Davis in 1969 and Howard Crooks for John Eliot Gardiner in 1989; Nicolai Gedda is more successful, if hardly ideal – again, see my survey for more detail. The peculiarity here in Spyres’ version is that his singing of the lower-pitched songs suitable for baritone falls more gratefully on the ear than the authentically tenor numbers.

On first listening, I turned with some relief to the coupling: the viola showpiece Harold in Italy – yet here again I cannot be enthusiastic about the result of the collaboration here between John Nelson and Timothy Ridout. Apart from the opening song of the cycle, where Nelson reproduces Colin Davis’ fault in both his recordings of imposing a dragging tempo on “Villanelle”, I find nothing objectionable in Nelson’s choice of pacing and phrasing of Les nuits d’été, but his direction here in this “symphony with viola obbligato” is at first rather enervated and stodgy – especially for a conductor whose Berlioz has in my experience invariably been energised; in that regard, I particularly enjoy his 2003 recording of Benvenuto Cellini.

I have no criticism of Ridout’s technical facility or musicality; his dexterity and especially command of graded dynamics are admirable and he is clearly a highly refined artist, but somehow he and Nelson are too restrained and fail to generate the pace, tension and excitement I hear in classic versions such as those by Ormandy with soloist Joseph de Pasquale and Munch with William Primrose. (On returning to a review I had almost forgotten of Sir Andrew Davis 2014 account with James Ehnes, I find that it, too, in comparison with those vintage recordings emerged as too placid, similar to the version under review.) Obviously the sound on those sixty-year-old recordings is not as vivid but the performances are certainly more so, particularly on the part of the orchestra. For example, I hear a kind of coiled, suppressed tension in the opening to both older versions which is absent from Nelson’s – nor is the orchestral playing as sumptuous or released. The same is true of the famous “Orgy of the Brigands” which should begin with a tremendous crash before it recycles the “idée fixe”. To be fair, Nelson allows the movement to gain in fervour as it progresses but does not generate the kind wild ecstasy demanded by Berlioz’ “Allegro frenetico” marking and which we hear in the readings of Munch and Ormandy – and Ridout remains something of a background-personality soloist compared with Primrose and de Pasquale.

To sum up, neither of these two new versions of Berlioz masterworks matches up to previous recordings; the song cycle in particular is deeply disappointing.

Ralph Moore

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