Hector Berlioz seems to have had an affinity for death scenes; besides those in his operas and semi-operas, he composed four death scenes for concert presentation, and two of those are included here, as well as a Marche funèbre for the last scene of Hamlet. Surprisingly, given the subject matter, La mort d'Orphée and La mort d'Ophélie are gently lyrical rather than wrenchingly tragic. Berlioz wrote the cantata La mort d'Orphée, the first of several unsuccessful entries in the Prix de Rome competition, when he was 24. It builds to an impressively dramatic climax, but its final movement is a sweetly melancholy depiction of Orphée's lyre. Scored for tenor solo, women's voices, and orchestra, despite some very effective orchestral writing, it does not hang together very convincingly, or consistently show the composer at his most inspired. La mort d'Ophélie for women's voices and orchestra is an appealing, gently melancholy ballad. Marche funèbre for the last scene of Hamlet, which was written as incidental music for a production of the play that never materialized, is a powerful, nobly understated expression of grief, with a wordless chorus hauntingly deployed. The piece ends the play with the chorus heard from a distance a cappella. The CD also includes several songs for tenor, chorus, and orchestra or piano. Villazón is in fine voice, singing with fullness, a heroic timbre, and the restraint appropriate for the material. He's an unusual artist in that although his voice seems to be ideally suited for a particular repertoire -- Italian 19th century and verismo -- he courageously steps far beyond that comfort zone and beautifully tailors his voice to fit a wide variety of styles. The chorus actually has a much larger role on the recording than Villazón. Choeur Les Eléments, a terrifically engaging ensemble, sings with great sensitivity and panache, and its tone is rich and well blended. Michel Plasson leads Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse in colorful, polished accompaniment. Virgin Classics' sound is clean, present, and expansively full. These pieces are mostly minor Berlioz, but the CD should appeal to fans of Romantic choral and vocal music from off the beaten path and anyone who follows Villazón's impressive career.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Eddins
|La Mort d'Orphée, for tenor, female chorus & orchestra|
|Tristia, Op. 18|