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This is an important release. Sir Colin Davis was a major conductor (arguably the conductor) of Berlioz, a composer he championed throughout his musical life. Released at affordable price, this Berlioz Odyssey is a goldmine, acting as a golden memorial for Sir Colin (1927- 2013); but also for the producer James Mallinson, who died in 2018 and, not least, for Berlioz himself, whose sesquicentenary falls in 2019. The works up to and including Harold above are issued on CD, the balance on hybrid SACD.

Collectors will no doubt be familiar with Davis’ classic Philips Berlioz recordings, plus a smattering on Hänssler. Given Sir Colin’s close association with the LSO, these final thoughts have a climactic element to them. Davis’ first Symphonie fantastique was with the LSO in 1963, revisiting it with the Concertgebouw (1974) and VPO (1990, live). This 2000 performance glows, achieving perfect balance between the lyric and the grotesque. The combination of Mallinson and engineer Tony Faulkner for LSO Live effectively gives us a mid-stalls seat, while the LSO’s virtuosity fully supports Davis’ vision. The 2003 Harold en Italie, featuring a strong and eloquent Tabea Zimmermann, is more colourful even than with Imai in 1975.

The sheer accuracy of the strings in the introduction to this 2013 performance of Roméo is testament to the discipline Davis instilled. His 1993 VPO version featured Borodina, but Daniela Barcellona feels more involved here; there is also the earlier, 1968 Philips Roméo (Kern, Tear, Shirley-Quirk). The ‘live’ element of LSO Live brings out a spontaneity and depth that trumps either, exemplified by the ‘Queen Mab’ Scherzo. The chorus excels, subtly in Juliette’s funeral procession and gloriously in the finale.

The Damnation de Faust is one of the finest performances ever recorded, including Davis’s 1973 account (Gedda/ Veasey/Bastin). The impassioned playing of the LSO is matched by Sabbatini’s ardent Faust; Pertusi is a characterful Méphistophélès. Dating from 2000, Davis’ multi-award winning Les Troyens is arguably even more impressive. The cast reads like a Who’s Who (Heppner/Mingardo/Lang/ DeYoung/Mattei), but it is the white-hot intensity of Davis’ conducting, the glorious LSC and the impeccable LSO itself that make this so unforgettable. DeYoung is an imposing, shining Didon.

Davis’ recorded association with Béatrice et Bénédict and L’enfance du Christ began in the 1960’s, for L’Oiseau-Lyre (Béatrice featured April Cantelo, Davis’ first wife). Here, Tarver and Shkosa are superbly paired in the titular roles of Béatrice; the LSO is as light as a feather. L’enfance du Christ offers the other, interior Berlioz, and Davis in 2005 underlines this while taking the depth of understanding to a whole new level. There is a crepuscular warmth here that seems more pronounced than in either Davis’ 1960 and 1976 accounts.

The 2007 Cellini is vital, imposing, as impressive if, this time, not overtaking, his 1972 traversal (Gedda/Eda-Pierre). Laura Claycomb is a profoundly lyrical Teresa, but Gregory Kunde cedes to Gedda. Again, the LSC triumphs.

The two great choral masterpieces of the Te Deum and the Grande Messe emerge as magnificent sonic experiences, the LSO brass on fire; they also offer deeply spiritual messages. Dresden readings (Hänssler) plus the 1969 Te Deum and Grande Messe again find unmissable bedfellows. The Messe, performed at St Paul’s, is awe- inspiring: Davis finds the work’s still centre just as accurately as the barn-storming drama, brass coming in waves approaching the ‘Tuba mirum’. Sadly, Barry Banks’ ‘Sanctus’ is strained and distant.

Note early pressings of this set contained significant errors in the booklet. However, if Davis, Mallinson and Berlioz could see this set, all three would surely wear proud smiles. And from one Colin to a far greater other, bravo.

COLIN CLARKE Read the full review on Agora Classica


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