C1816. A Berlioz spectacular: REQUIEM: Jean Fournet Cond. Radio Paris Orch., Emile Passani Choir & Georges Jouatte - recorded 1943; TE DEUM [World Premiere Recording] Malcolm Sargent Cond. BBC S.O., London Phil. Chorus, Alexandra Choir & Richard Lewis, Live Performance, 5 Sept., 1963, Royal Albert Hall, London; ROMÉO ET JULIETTE [World Premiere Recording]: Alfred Wallenstein Cond. NYPO & Juilliard Chorus, w. Nan Merriman, Léopold Simoneau & Donald Gramm - Live Performance, 26 Jan., 1961, Carnegie Hall, w.Broadcast Commentary. (Canada) 3-Immortal Performances IPCD 1120, w.Elaborate 50pp Booklet. Transfers by Richard Caniell. Notes by Dewey Faulkner & Richard Caniell. - 752830193161
“Immortal Performances celebrates the unique genius of Hector Berlioz with a trio of historic performances: the first a commercial recording, and the final two, broadcasts of live concerts, both billed as world premiere releases. The very first recording of the Berlioz REQUIEM, was made in the Paris Saint-Eustache Cathedral, where the composer himself had conducted performances of his works. The recording was made by French EMI in September of 1943, during the Nazi occupation. Given the world premiere status of the recording, the circumstances under which it was made, and the presence of the excellent French conductor Jean Fournet on the podium, the 1943 EMI GRANDE MESSE DES MORTS is self-recommending to anyone interested in the history of Berlioz performances. Berlioz conceived his REQUIEM MASS as an epic and powerful sonic experience, with a massive number of performing forces placed throughout the concert venue (the premiere took place in the Paris Church of Les Invalides on December 5, 1837). In his superb liner notes, Dewey Faulkner emphatically and persuasively argues that for Berlioz’s music to make its greatest effect it must be heard live, and in a first-rate concert venue. This is a performance of importance and distinction. If the grandest moments do not make their optimal impact, they are still effective, and the more introspective episodes are delivered with beauty, and heartfelt emotional intensity. Fournet leads a performance that never lags, but also never sounds rushed, or wanting for expressivity. The Chorale Emile Passini sings with a musicality and yearning intensity that is all the more affecting given an awareness of what the artists were enduring at the time. Tenor Georges Jouatte (who was also the Faust in Fournet’s relatively contemporaneous recording of Berlioz’s LA DAMNATION DE FAUST) sings beautifully in his brief but demanding appearance in the Sanctus. The Immortal Performances restoration is a significant improvement [over earlier transfers]. The sonic picture now emerges with far greater depth, dynamic range, color, and detail. If you are interested in exploring this historic and important recording, the Immortal Performances restoration offers the best opportunity.
The featured recordings of ROMÉO ET JULIETTE and the TE DEUM offer a more advantageous marriage of performance strengths and sonics. A January 1961 Carnegie Hall broadcast performance of Berlioz’s Dramatic Symphony is an inspired affair. Conductor Alfred Wallenstein leads the New York Philharmonic, Juilliard Chorus, and vocal soloists in a reading brimming with energy, propulsive drive, and a joyous celebration of Berlioz’s unique and brilliant sonic palette. If the Queen Mab Scherzo doesn’t ascend to quite the magical heights of Toscanini’s renditions, it is still a considerable achievement. Throughout, the performance wonderfully conveys Roméo and Juliet’s teeming and unquenchable youthful passion and, ultimately, the heartbreaking tragedy of their demise. The New York Philharmonic plays gloriously for Wallenstein, and the Juilliard Chorus delivers a first-rate account of the dramatically and musically significant choral portions. The performance is also graced with three superb soloists, all expert in the French style, and Berlioz’s individual style of writing for the voice. Mezzo Nan Merriman and tenor Leopold Simoneau sing with elegance and tonal beauty in their relatively brief appearances. Bass-baritone Donald Gramm plays a far more significant role toward the work’s close, and he rises to the occasion as noble-voiced and sympathetic Friar Lawrence. The sound is quite fine, and more than adequate to enjoy this riveting performance, one with an electricity that rarely, if ever, is replicated in the commercial recording studio. The set concludes with a magisterial performance of the TE DEUM for chorus, solo tenor, and orchestra, taped at the Proms in Royal Albert Hall on September 5, 1963. Here, the sound is broadcast stereo, and quite fine at that. Malcolm Sargent secures first-rate contributions from the BBC Singers, Wembley Philharmonic Society, and BBC Symphony Orchestra. Yet another superb soloist, the lyric tenor Richard Lewis, is in lovely, ringing voice. The mike placements are relatively close to the stage. And so the recording, while boasting admirable richness, detail, and visceral impact, does not really suggest the vast expanses of Royal Albert Hall. A worthy conclusion to a superb trio of Berlioz performances.
In addition to Faulkner’s elegant and informative program notes, the booklet includes texts and translations for the REQUIEM and TE DEUM commentary by producer Richard Caniell (including his Recording Notes), and artist bios. A wonderful sonic restoration of a landmark in Berlioz recordings, coupled with two superb live performances, both world premieres. Berlioz lovers, this one is for you!”
- Ken Meltzer, FANFARE
“This is a valuable addition to the Berlioz discography, consisting of the first recording ever made of the REQUIEM and live performances of ROMÉO ET JULIETTE and the TE DEUM. The high technical standard of Richard Caniell’s restorations is of special importance with music of such scope and color, although the sonic limitations of the originals certainly compromise the composer’s intentions. Modern stereo or digital recordings are clearly the first choices for each of these works, and this set is more aimed at specialist collectors or those who enjoy learning the performance history of important pieces of music.
Jean Fournet’s recording of the REQUIEM was made in the Cathedral of Saint-Eustache in Paris in 1943, where Berlioz himself had conducted performances of the work. From 1943 through 1956, his was the only recording of this wonderful score. Given the rarity of performances of such a massive work in concert, for many music lovers in the 1940s and 1950s this was the only way to hear it. What is surprising is how well it holds up against the later competition. Sonically, Fournet’s account does not capture the full splendor of the REQUIEM’s vast canvas, but the remastered sound is listenable for anyone who is used to historic recordings, and it preserves a purely French style of performance better than almost all of the competition. I’d say, in fact, that it boasts better sound quality than just about any other recording from 1943 that I’ve ever encountered.
Prior to the internationalization of orchestral playing, which began for the most part in the 1960s, orchestras had a distinctive national sound. Although there have been modern recordings of the Berlioz REQUIEM led by French conductors, and with French ensembles, there is no question that this Fournet performance has a more distinctly French quality about it. We hear it in the orchestral and choral timbres, the clarity of textures, and the ebb and flow of the phrases.
One is surprised by the scarcity of recordings of the REQUIEM by all-French performers. Some using French forces are conducted by non-French conductors (Barenboim, Scherchen, Bernstein). Dutoit/Montréal falls into its own Francophone category. My personal favorite remains the Boston recording with Charles Munch for its combination of power and beauty. But looking through various sources, Fournet’s is the only performance I could find on disc where all the participants were French, and I think that does bring a valuably idiomatic character to the music-making. The delicate filigree of the woodwinds against the rest of the orchestra in the ‘Offertorium’ is one example where the performance just sounds more right than others. Fournet’s feeling for balances - between sections in the chorus and in the orchestral - is particularly impressive. That and the completely natural flow of the music distinguish this reading.
I wish I could muster similar enthusiasm for Alfred Wallenstein’s conducting of ROMÉO ET JULIETTE. This 1961 New York Philharmonic broadcast offers some fine singing from all three soloists, Nan Merriman, Léopold Simoneau, and Donald Gramm. The major portion of this symphonie dramatique, as Berlioz called it, is orchestral and choral, and it depends on a conductor who can shape both well. Wallenstein’s conducting tends to be moment-to-moment, lacking in an overall arch. There is a shortage of sweep and sustained line in the Love Scene, and a bit too heavy a touch in movements like the ‘Scherzetto’, and ‘La reine Mab’.
The set concludes with what was a real discovery for me: a performance of the rarely played TE DEUM from a 1963 BBC Proms concert led by Malcolm Sargent. Sargent was particularly known for his conducting of big choral works, and he is completely at home here. Sargent brings very crisp rhythmic definition to the music, and the BBC forces sing and play gloriously for him. If you have ever been to a Proms concert, you will understand when I speak about their special atmosphere. The atmosphere at a Proms concert is unlike that of any other setting, and it frequently spills over to the performers.
It clearly has done so here, as there is a unique flamboyance and energy present from the outset. Caniell has had to fix a few spots from his original source, to which he speaks in his recording notes, but I didn’t notice any of these fixes. Everything sounds like a quite good 1963 monaural broadcast. In FANFARE 17:4, reviewing a Sargent-conducted DREAM OF GERONTIUS, Peter J. Rabinowitz commented upon the conductor’s ‘special attention to the snap of the bass lines’, noting that he heard the same quality in Sargent’s accompanying of Artur Schnabel’s Beethoven concerto recordings. I hear it here, along with an ability to inspire choral singers to give everything they have throughout the work. The gentle lyricism of ‘Te ergo quaesumus’ is conveyed with serenity at first, and then Sargent and tenor Richard Lewis build convincingly as the music expands to proclaim the glory of the Heavens.
So two of the three performances here are valuable releases. Sargent’s TE DEUM has never been available before to my knowledge, and the Fournet REQUIEM sounds significantly better than on the Dante Lys and Malibran reissues. I didn’t have a set of the old Columbia LPs with which to compare it, but I cannot imagine that they sounded any better than this superb transfer. Added value can be noted in that these are the only recordings of important singers (Merriman, Simoneau, Gramm) in this repertoire, and the ROMÉO ET JULIETTE has never been issued in any form.
As is the norm for this label, the box includes a superb booklet with insightful notes by Dewey Faulkner, recording notes by Caniell, wonderful photos, and a complete text and translation of the REQUIEM and TE DEUM (though not of ROMÉO ET JULIETTE).
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE