John Barbirolli / Riccardo Muti

Berlioz: Roméo et Juliette; Les Nuits d'été

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Berlioz's symphonie dramatique Roméo et Juliette contains some of the composer's most immediately appealing music, but it's rarely performed, perhaps because its form is so eccentric. Berlioz was fond of creating works that blurred or intermingled conventional genres and Roméo is a classic example: described as a symphony, but having a distinct, familiar narrative trajectory, using soloists and chorus, and giving a prominent role to vocal and choral recitative. It's familiar largely through its purely instrumental sections, especially the "Queen Mab Scherzo," but it makes its strongest impact as a complete work. For the listener open to Berlioz's characteristic individuality and quirkiness, Roméo et Juliette richly rewards investigation.

One of the most striking aspects of this 1986 recording was the decision to cast soprano Jessye Norman in the part written for an alto, but it's an entirely apt choice. Norman easily has the solidity the part requires in its lower register, and in its upper stretches, her voice has a gleaming purity; "Premiers transports," is especially lovely, sung with ecstatic ethereality. Tenor John Aler sings lyrically in his brief solo appearance, a scherzetto about Queen Mab, but he doesn't bring it the animated fleetness to make it really sparkle. Simon Estes is nicely resonant as Père Laurence, but his French vowels are sometimes less than idiomatic. The chorus is the real musical star of the piece, and the Westminster Choir, prepared by Joseph Flummerfelt, sings with passion and finesse, and with understated restraint when required, as in the choral recitatives. The Philadelphia Orchestra, under Riccardo Muti, plays the mercurial score more carefully than passionately, but the finale does build to a genuinely exciting conclusion.

The set includes the legendary 1969 performance of Les Nuits d'été with Janet Baker and John Barbirolli leading the New Philharmonia Orchestra. Baker's radiant singing is subtly nuanced, beautifully capturing the emotional complexity of the songs, and she's matched by Barbirolli's shapely accompaniment. Baker's performance alone makes the set one that should interest any fan of bel canto singing. The sound quality for the song cycle is excellent and outstanding in the symphony.

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