Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette
A discographical survey by Ralph Moore

As a Berlioz devotee, I have several times over the last few years toyed with, then shied away from, the idea of doing this survey to join those I have done of four of his major vocal works. My reason for doing so resides mainly in that as much as I love the work, I heartily dislike several of the more recent recordings and was never very fond of the 1968 “reference recording” by Colin Davis, nor indeed his last account, thus I did not want to devote time and effort to moaning about those; furthermore, I have long had a couple of firm favourites which I was sure would come out on top after my labours. Nonetheless, my tastes aren’t everybody’s and although I inevitably bring my own standards and even prejudices to my assessments, I do occasionally find that revisiting recordings causes me to revise my responses, sometimes quite radically – so here we are.

For all its beauty, it is in some ways an ungainly, episodic and imbalanced work but it has attracted a lot of recordings and I consider it to be one of maverick genius. My attachment to it is inextricably linked to my first exposure to Shakespeare’s play as a teenager via the classic Zeffirelli film; it seems to me that it and Berlioz’ transmutation of the tragedy into music perfectly complement each other and images of the former always inform my listening to the latter. Berlioz idolised Shakespeare – his ill-fated marriage to Harriet Smithson was the consequence of his infatuation with her when as a young man he saw her playing Juliet and Ophelia  in Paris – and this was his tribute to her and the Bard. Like La damnation de Faust, it is a mixed genre work, not easily categorised in that it combines elements of opera, cantata and symphony; indeed, he called it a “symphonie dramatique” – or perhaps we would more readily recognise it as a choral symphony – which requires three fine vocal soloists, a first-rate choir and the most subtle direction of its varied and mercurial music. It is cast in seven parts and Émile Deschamps’ libretto is a poetic narration with only a few phrases and ideas adapted from the Shakespearean text, even including a metafictional reference to that greatest of playwrights. It is an extremely advanced, adventurous score, anticipatory of Wagner in its chromatic harmonies and orchestral depictions of psychological states and narration of events; Wagner himself specifically acknowledged the link between Tristan und Isolde and Berlioz’ masterwork and their viola openings are very similar. Twenty years after its premiere, Wagner presented Berlioz with a full score with the inscription, “To the dear and great author of Romeo and Juliet, from the grateful author of Tristan and Isolde.” Readers interested in a dissection of the beauty of those harmonies might like to watch on YouTube this enormously instructive rehearsal of Bernstein working with the young orchestra of the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival, made only a year before his death. He makes very clear how and why he considers it to be one of the most beautiful works ever written – especially the love music, first redolent of the perfumed night air of an Italian garden, then suffused with the desperate, untrammelled passion of young love.

It is interesting how Berlioz does not begin to attempt to tell the whole story of the play but instead seizes upon and responds musically to those aspects which entranced him; hence, Mercutio’s brief mention of Queen Mab is amplified and enhanced to provide two numbers – an aria and the orchestral Scherzo – which lend the work so much of its fantastical character and indeed “leaven the lump” of the tragedy, just as Shakespeare himself was wont to do in his plays by introducing incongruous light or comic scenes. Hence, I demand a really good tenor soloist, despite the brevity of his contribution, and find the Scherzo to be almost as central to any performance as the famous Love Scene.

I have confined myself to stereo recordings with the exception of Munch’s classic 1953 account and a fascinating one from early in Maazel’s career. Where MusicWeb colleagues have previously reviewed sets, I have provided links and apologise if I have missed any; if so, please advise me accordingly and they can be inserted. I have considered a total of twenty-three recordings; again, I don’t think I have missed any major ones but readers will, I am sure, alert me to any serious omissions.

The Recordings:

1953 Charles Munch, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Harvard Glee Club and Radcliffe Choral Society.
Margaret Roggero, Leslie Chabay, Yi-Kwei Sze.
RCA. Studio mono, 22–23 February 1953, Boston, USA.

1961 Charles Munch, Boston Symphony Orchestra, New England Conservatory Chorus.
Rosalind Elias, Cesare Valletti, Giorgio Tozzi.
RCA. Studio stereo, 23–24 April 1961, Boston, USA.

It makes sense to review these two famous accounts by Munch comparatively. The conductor’s temperament was ideally suited to embracing Berlioz’ mercurial style, which alternates and juxtaposes long arching lyrical lines with passages of febrile intensity. The earlier recording was first considered twenty years ago here by Stephen Vasta  (whose review indicates that Archipel’s transfer is to be avoided in favour of RCA’s) ) and shortly thereafter the two were compared as part of the RCA Munch Berlioz box set by Christopher Howell (review) and Jonathan Woolf (review). All three make specific points with which I agree, and our general consensus is that despite their similarities in tempi and phrasing, they offer rather different but equally valid experiences, mainly consequent upon the respective acoustics of what was presumably the same recording venue but, of course, the 1961 account is in stereo. The earlier mono sound is clean, crisp and dry with virtually no reverberation – not by any means unpleasant but devoid of any hint of the sumptuousness which a more sympathetic acoustic automatically provides, so Munch actually lingers an extra two and a half minutes over the love scene as if trying to find more resonance. His handling of rubato and rallentando is masterly and despite the relatively thin sound, all the ecstasy and passion of that music emerge and the spring and delicacy of the faster music such as the Queen Mab Scherzo are enchanting; it is only when set alongside the stereo remake that we might find those passages lacking but there is an enduring appeal to the very French sound Munch conjures, such as the biting woodwind tone in the Invocation.

Munch’s soloists in the earlier recording are straightforwardly pleasing: Margaret Roggero sings cleanly and clearly with a nice, steady line and consistently warm tone; the Hungarian-born tenor Leslie Chabay has a small, light, rather nasal tenor but he sings good French and sounds authentically Gallic without making much impression; Shanghai-born bass Yi Kwei Sze has a neat, sonorous voice and also sings good French with considerable authority and expression.

The more remote sound of the older recording necessarily puts some distance between it and the listener but it has a kind of classical purity about it which remains appealing. Nonetheless, it is something of a relief to turn to the excellent stereo sound of the later remake, in which one feels immersed in the drama and can properly hear the instrumental lines. Contrasts between passages such as the pounding “party music” and the succeeding “distant voices” in the Nuit sereine are more vivid. The professional choir, too, is smaller, more homogeneous, better tuned and more idiomatic than their enthusiastic but rather American-sounding predecessors and the extra glamour of Munch’s star soloists – all three Met stalwarts – is an additional advantage. Perhaps Rosalind Elias’ flickering vibrato is an acquired taste but that feature combined with judicious deployment of her pungent lower register makes her voice redolent of greater passion than Roggero’s cooler rendition of her strophes. Cesare Valletti is fuller-voiced than Chabay and again sings excellent French with flexibility and sensitivity. The treacly gravity of Giorgio Tozzi’s bass is a treat. The orchestra is superlative in both versions, but once more we can simply hear them better in stereo. All in all, this permits Munch to create a somewhat more Romantic and indulgent impression hardly at odds with the subject matter, despite the fact that he is often brisker than before – as per the difference in the Love Scene noted above, whose urgent pace is more suggestive of youthful ardour. The Queen Mab Scherzo, too, is one of the fleetest on both versions – only Ozawa takes it a mite faster – and it is as light as thistledown, yet still captures some of its “faery menace” in the slower sections and the eerie conclusion.

1958 Lorin Maazel, Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Roma della RAI.
Andrée Aubéry-Luchini, Camille Maurane, Heinz Rehfuss.
Andromeda. Live mono, 1959, Naples.

This live mono sound here is marred by the occasional close cough from the audience and sometimes very faint pre-echo on the tape but it is otherwise very clean and immediate without too much hiss and I think preferable to Munch’s earlier recording, at least from a sonic point of view. It also provides an interesting prologue to Maazel’s 1972 studio recording (see below). He evidently loved and conducted this work from early in his career; there is also a mono recording of excerpts with the BPO from 1957 and another of excerpts from a live concert in 1959 with l’Orchestre National de la RTF,  but I am here considering only complete performances.

Maazel attacks the Introduction with such vigour that it knocks the listener sideways and pushes the RAI orchestra to – and perhaps slightly beyond – its limits; sample it on YouTube here. The brass is grand. The scenes of conflict are vividly realised, yet he relaxes for the love music which is rapturously phrased; both extremes are catered for without undue vulgarity. The Queen Mab Scherzo is quicksilver delight. Juliet’s awakening is vividly realised with great drama. The small chorus is equally full-blooded and committed, and sings in decent French; the distancing effect as the revellers retire is beautifully managed. The soloists are fine; Andrée Aubéry-Luchini has a dark, smoky soprano, tenor Camille Maurane is entirely idiomatic in a part he enjoyed singing and I have always appreciated the fast vibrato and resonant timbre of the neglected Heinz Rehfuss. He slightly scants low notes, being a bass-baritone rather than a true bass, but he has a lovely voice and sings expressively and intelligently in beautiful French. The finale is measured and dignified. Here is the complete recording on YouTube for you to sample.

If you are tolerant of good mono sound this could easily be a first choice, but it is at the very least a highly enjoyable supplement, showcasing the young Maazel in highly demonstrative form somewhat akin to Bernstein’s unbridled affect. I love its up-front emotionalism.

1962 Pierre Monteux, London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.
Regina Resnik, André Turp, David Ward.
Westminster/DG Presto. Stereo studio, 18–21 June 1962 Walthamstow Town Hall, London.

I reviewed this back in 2015 as a double CD coupled with the Symphonie fantastique and excerpt my findings regarding Roméo here:

A “Westminster Legacy” re-issue, this Berlioz double-bill CD enjoys really extraordinary sound for its era. Every instrument comes through with great clarity, in balance with the others. There’s a minimum of hiss and a real sense of space around the music.

[The] LSO under Monteux plays absolutely beautifully, yet even they are upstaged by the verve and attack of the chorus, who sing in excellent French and sound as if they are relishing every moment of their contribution. The climactic chorus is terrifically rousing.

I have read criticism of Monteux sometimes sounding old, tired and routine in his later recordings. He was indeed 87 at the time of this recording and died only two years later, yet he evinces no sign of waning powers: the ecstasy of the love music and the drama of the tomb scene both emerge triumphant, and the frequent quicksilver episodes are never lethargic.

His three soloists are excellent: Regina Resnik is a tad mature and occasionally even a little hoarse of tone but she is steady and expressive in her narrative. André Turp is light, fleet and a genuinely idiomatic Gallic tenor. Best of all is smooth, sonorous, authoritative, Scottish bass David Ward’s Père Laurence, reminding us what a fine artist he was. He sings in good French but makes one minor error, mispronouncing “crucifix” with an Italianate “ch”.

I have not found there to be too many successful recordings of this work; too often they are compromised by some flaw in casting or an inability to unite what can become a diffuse, sprawling and even unbalanced work, for all its many incidental beauties. However, this one vies for quality with my two favourites under Ozawa and Maazel, both of which are currently hard to find.*

A full French text and an English translation are provided.

* Used copies of those two favourite issues may be still be found but are more readily available as downloads. Mine were from ArkivMusik whose ArkivCD service “carries a selection of licensed recordings of out-of-print material, including (but not limited to) albums which are produced on-demand on CD-R and feature original replica artwork” – but they no longer seem to be available. I would also modify my observation regarding the number of desirable recordings; doing this survey has uncovered more than I thought existed.

1968 Sir Colin Davis, London Symphony Orchestra, John Alldis Choir.
Patricia Kern, Robert Tear, John Shirley-Quirk.
Philips. Stereo studio, 24, 27–28 February & 13–14 April 1968, Wembley Town Hall, London.

The Introduction here is the fastest of all – exciting, yes, very skilfully played and benefitting from excellent sound despite some slight background hiss and rumble, but really frantic. The small choir is highly expressive, sounding well-drilled and at home in the music. Patricia Kern sings her strophes with a kind of rapt restraint and a warm steady tone which are most attractive – but then Robert Tear’s strangulated, pulsing tenor bursts my bubble. Of course, he makes only brief interventions but for me they are still a blot on the set and although Davis is perfectly capable of relaxing, at other times I find his haste vexing, and lovely though the playing of the LSO is, I do not always find that Davis lets the music breathe as sensuously as my favourite conductors in this music, nor do the syncopated ball music and the Queen Mab Scherzo have quite as much spring and impact as are ideal; I find the latter rather timid. In fact, somehow, for me, the central Scène d’amour, too, lacks inner tension and drags a little, despite Davis’ prevailing haste elsewhere. However, John Shirley-Quirk is in mellifluous voice as Père Laurence; he sings nobly, enunciating the text clearly in very good French.

I am well aware that for many this was their first exposure to the work and as a result imprinted on their consciousness, thus hard to critique “objectively”, and I concede its many virtues, especially as the playing is so good and I like two of the three soloists – yet it is by no means my favourite.

1972 Lorin Maazel, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, ORTF Choir.
Christa Ludwig, Michel Sénéchal, Nicolai Ghiaurov. 
Decca. Stereo studio, 11–15 December 1972, Sofiensaal, Vienna.

This was my own introduction to this work but I don’t think that is why I still favour it – I was just lucky. Having been bowled over by Maazel’s live Naples performance fourteen years earlier, I can now hear much the same drive and passion – but in first-rate, analogue, Decca sound in a blemish-free studio recording with another of the world’s great orchestras and three star soloists. Furthermore, both the original issue and the licensed Arkiv re-issue contain the French text and English translation (see the note above under Monteux’ recording). I suppose the main questions are: has Maazel lost his youthful impetus and can the VPO and Austrian choir sound sufficiently French? The answer to the latter is yes; the chorus lightens its tone and pronunciation is impeccable; they are particularly affecting in Juliet’s funeral lament. The orchestra, too is crisp and fleet in the dance sections with pungent woodwind throughout and there is certainly no shortage of drama in the orchestral narration of the Juliet’s awakening and the lovers’ death in the tomb, but the love music sighs, yearns and swoons rapturously – so I think we may say in answer to the first question that although Maazel is not as fiery here, he is still sufficiently energised and in fact strikes a better balance between the erotic and the frenetic.

Sonic balances are good, too; the night revellers start dimly, far stage left, move to the centre and become more audible then stumble off stage right in the sound picture, fading away.

Christa Ludwig’s warm, distinctive mezzo is sensuous and just a tad doom-laden, which I like; you could not find a more pleasingly Gallic tenor than Michel Sénéchal and Nicolai Ghiaurov in his prime is magnificently authoritative. His role in the final vow of friendship adds materially to its massive impact. I am hard pushed to find fault with anything here.

1975 Seiji Ozawa, Boston Symphony Orchestra, New England Conservatory Chorus.
Julia Hamari, Jean Dupouy, José van Dam.
Deutsche Grammophon. Stereo studio, October 1975, Boston, October.

I have invariably found Ozawa to be superlative in Berlioz – indeed I heard him conduct it wonderfully at Tanglewood – and his delicacy and sensitivity in delivering this music is a constant delight. Like Maazel, Ozawa has the advantage of excellent analogue stereo sound, a great orchestra, a fine choir and three first-rate soloists, two of whom are francophone (as opposed to Maazel’s one, but Ludwig and Ghiaurov sing decent French) and Julia Hamari sounds native. His opening is very fast but there is a lightness of touch which is more sophisticated than that of some other speed-merchants and that ductile elegance makes me wonder how many of the musicians here had played under Munch. Although they can play lusciously, very often they adopt a leaner, more astringent tone to suggest emotional conflict, such as in the introduction to track 5, Roméo seul – and, incidentally, what a lovely oboe solo before the stomping dance music – and I prize that protean quality which must surely be the result of Ozawa’s instructions to his strings on how precisely to produce the sound he desires to reflect the myriad emotions contained within this work. The Scène d’amour is exquisitely shaped, as with the Maazel recording, the revellers first appropriately distanced far over to the left in the aural landscape then moving away; the playing of the BSO is so refined and nuanced here that I am completely seduced by it. The Queen Mab Scherzo is exquisitely executed – fleeting, diaphanous and otherworldly. The Tomb Scene is searingly dramatic – special kudos to the strings there. Overall, Ozawa’s tempi are swift yet there is never any sense of rush, just forward momentum, tying the seven disparate sections together.

Hamari matches Ozawa with a purity and sincerity in her singing which go straight to the heart; she is perfectly even-toned and  somehow both romantic yet plaintive – almost regretful. Jean Dupouy has had a very long and successful career, displaying great versatility and vocal endurance, and here again demonstrates why his pre-eminence in a world sadly lacking in authentic French tenors has perhaps never been acknowledged quite as fully as he deserves. Like Hamari, he sings in a wholly attractive, straightforward manner, without any bleating or constriction, inflecting the words adeptly – perfect. Conversely, José van Dam has had an illustrious career and received numerous tokens recognising his gifts – and here he shows how and why that is so, singing with an unfailingly beautiful and penetrating timbre, pellucid diction and greater ease in alt than the otherwise excellent Ghiaurov, van Dam being a bass-baritone rather than a basso cantante.

Subtlety, delicacy and passion are the hallmarks of this splendid recording; it would be a leaden soul which did not respond to its charms.

1980 Daniel Barenboim, Orchestre de Paris, Chœur de L’Orchestre de Paris.
Yvonne Minton, Francisco Araiza, Jules Bastin.
Deutsche Grammophon. Stereo studio, 1979.

Back in 2009, I wrote a damning review of this, which was included in an uninspiring anthology on the usually admirable and dependable Decca Eloquence label. I extract the relevant portions here:

I began listening to this compilation with a completely open mind, but soon found myself bemused by why anyone would bother to assemble such a lifeless, mediocre medley of Berlioz performances when there are so many great ones to be found in the catalogue. The main fault lies with Barenboim’s conducting. He has done Berlioz proud elsewhere, but here seems to have no idea what to do with the two great works he undertakes: both the Symphonie fantastique and Roméo et Juliette are devoid of the rhythmic élan and vitality which characterise Berlioz’s music; the “Scène d’amour” in the latter, in particular, is utterly without erotic tension and the “Marche au supplice” in the symphony limps along aimlessly. It is not a question of timings; comparison with Bernstein reveals little difference there. The problem is more in the lack of feeling for the phrasing required. Barenboim frequently engineers apparently random rallentandi or sudden changes in dynamics without any apparent expressive justification and the results are painfully unengaging.

Turning to Bernstein, one is thrilled by a sense of recognition and rightness; that’s how the music should go. In Ozawa’s lovely account of the Roméo, the music ebbs and surges just as Barenboim’s doesn’t; nor are the Orchestre de Paris any match for Bernstein’s Orchestre National de France or Ozawa’s Boston Symphony Orchestra – although again, I suspect that has more to do with Barenboim’s lacklustre direction. The recording quality does not help; it is muffled, boomy and lacking definition; the sound picture remains confused and muddied…

…To compound the general weakness of this three disc set, the listings absurdly credit Christa Ludwig as well as the excellent Yvonne Minton as taking part in the performance of the Roméo, but of course there is room for only one lower female voice, and that is Minton… [She] is the best of the soloists; Araiza is nimble but not especially ingratiating of tone and Jules Bastin, while idiomatic and expressive, does not have the weight of voice the part needs, such as brought to it by José van Dam or Robert Lloyd.

You will have gathered by now that I found no real raison d’être for this issue and wonder what the folks at Universal Music Australia were thinking of when they cobbled it together.

1983 Lamberto Gardelli, Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.
Brigitte Fassbaender, Nicolai Gedda, John Shirley-Quirk.
Orfeo. Stereo studio, 18–25 February 1983, Musikvereinssaal, Vienna.

My regular readers will know that I often struggle to appreciate what I hear as Gedda’s constricted tone but I always try to allow for the tastes of those who do not share my reaction – and the other two soloists here are among my favourites, as is the conductor, Gardelli – although I have never associated him with Berlioz –  so I have tried to assess this recording with an open mind.

As one may immediately hear, Gardelli’s tempi are more measured without being slack and he has a first-rate orchestra at his disposal. The recorded sound is not of the best – rather veiled and removed – but that is a negligible issue. Fassbaender has always delighted me and her deep, rich contralto sound, excellent French and commitment to the emotion of the text make her one of the very best narrators; I just love it when she plunges into her lower register. Gedda sounds right as Mercutio but there is already a beat in his tenor and he is hardly delicate, tending to shout a bit and occasionally skirting a parlando manner. The choir sounds rather too small and individual voices obtrude. Gardelli plays the Scène d’amour with suitably Italianate ardour, but the string tone comes across as a bit thin and even screechy. While I like his slower tempi in the lyrical music, I think he underplays the vim and vigour of the dance music at the Capulet ball – it is a bit leaden and stodgy – and the Tomb Scene is short on tension. The distancing of the revellers is only partial – not as atmospheric as it is in the best versions; they sound as if they are still in a hall but just singing softly. John Shirley-Quirk’s Friar Lawrence is still good but his vibrato has loosened and his timbre has become cloudier since he recorded the role for Davis fifteen years earlier.

By far the best thing here is Fassbaender’s brief contribution – so this is not a reference recording, by a long stretch, and there is much better to be had. Disappointing.

1985 Charles Dutoit, Orchestre et Chœur Symphonique de Montréal; L’Ensemble vocal Tudor de Montréal
Florence Quivar, Alberto Cupido, Tom Krause.
Decca. Stereo studio, 1985, Saint Eustache Church, Montreal, Canada.

Dutoit is another conductor who sets off at a great rate, approaching a scramble, but his Montreal orchestra are up to it and their brass are especially sonorous. Interestingly, he uses two different choirs: the first a smaller group in the Prologue, presumably to create a more intimate atmosphere – Berlioz stipulated only fourteen voices without sopranos here –  which is good but sounds a little distant and timorous; for Part III the regular, larger chorus is employed. Dutoit’s soloists are a mixed bunch, too: Florence Quivar’s husky, slightly lachrymose mezzo-soprano is not perhaps ideally pure and steady bur she sings well enough; Alfredo Cupido sings excellent French but his tone is not ingratiating; best is Tom Krause, dark, expressive and very adept with the text.

Nothing here is downright poor, yet for some reason I find it hard to put my finger on, this account is rather dull – and that is a feature I have previously encountered with Dutoit’s recordings. Too often he strikes me as being like Haitink on an off day: correct, dutiful and uninspired – simply too reticent. Thus the sequence of scintillating numbers which adorn Part II from Roméo seul through the ball and the Love Scene to the Queen Mab Scherzo is serenely played but simply never takes off; those passages lack inner tension and in the end come across as slack – I derive absolutely no sense of ecstasy from Dutoit’s strait-laced direction. The music is so good that it still entertains but the interpretative deficiencies become apparent when you listen to versions by Inbal, Ozawa and Maazel, who all find so much more thrilling animation in it. The same is true of the Tomb Scene – “Delirious joy, despair – final agonies”? Not really, just mild consternation. Unfortunately, exactly the same was true of his La Damnation de Faust.

Oddly, the booklet gives the entire French libretto, then does so again with a German translation – but no English. Go figure…in any case, this is not one to go with…

1986 Riccardo Muti, Philadelphia Orchestra, New Philharmonia Orchestra, Westminster Choir.
Jessye Norman, John Aler, Simon Estes.
EMI Classics. Studio digital, 25-28 January 1986, Memorial Hall, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, USA.

I reviewed this relatively recently, coupled with Dame Janet Baker’s reference recording of Les nuits d’été and this is the pertinent extract:

[T]he digital sound is first-class and Muti goes off like a rocket with the fastest account of the opening combat on record – and the Philadelphia Orchestra, to its credit, keeps up. The Westminster Choir sings delicately in excellent French and despite his penchant for driven, energised tempi, Muti gives them plenty of space to caress the words of their narrative. The soloists could hardly be bettered: the versatile Jessye Norman here exploits the warm lower reaches of her soprano Falcon; her voluptuous tones are well suited to her music. She has both power and finesse and of course her French is impeccable. I have long admired John Aler’s sweet, flexible, lyric tenor and he sings his quicksilver Queen Mab aria very adroitly; he is also clearly a French song specialist. While more beautiful voices have sung Père Laurence, Simon Estes has a grainy, authoritative bass and commands respect as the well-meaning Friar. The climax of the work is properly grand and imposing.

Central to this work is the love music; but to my ears Berlioz wrote few things more passionate and soulful than the music for the Roméo seul number and it sets the tone for a sweep of simply sublime music which transports the listener on a wave of inspiration through the ball to that “Scène d’amour“. Muti and the Philadelphia play it superbly, perfectly captures the bittersweet melancholy and ecstasy of doomed young love.

1988 Eliahu Inbal, Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt, Kölner Rundfunkchor, Südfunkchor Stuttgart, RIAS-Kammerchor Berlin.
Nadine Denize, Vinson Cole, Robert Lloyd.
Brilliant Classics (part of set), Studio digital, 3-6 January, 1988, Alter Oper, Frankfurt.

Originally issued on Denon, then as part of the Brilliant “Hector Berlioz Edition” box set, reviewed here and here, this recording – and, indeed, the set as a whole – has always been something of a sleeper – which I think has often been the fate of Inbal’s recordings in general. One slight problem here for me is that it was recorded – or has been remastered – at too low a volume for my equipment and needs cranking up, but otherwise the sound is very good and effects such as the song of the distant revellers approaching and receding are nicely engineered. A first-class Romantic conductor directing a fine orchestra and choir – somewhat larger but also more recessed than usual, presumably to compensate – and three excellent soloists make it an attractive prospect and I have always enjoyed it. Inbal’s style is very natural and relaxed, such that the work does not come across as too episodic but section flows and melds into section very organically. Nadine Denize has a lovely mezzo-soprano and sings full-voiced but in a dreamy manner, employing a “floaty” piano tone; Vinson Cole has a small, neat tenor and sings his Queen Mab aria in idiomatically Gallic style, and I have always had a weakness for Robert Lloyd’s rich bass. He sounds completely at ease in French and the resonance of his voice is balm to the ear.

Compared with some accounts, Inbal takes his time – this runs to 95 minutes, which is similar to Maazel and Muti – whereas some versions, such as Ozawa’s light-on-its feet recording at 88 minutes, are seven or eight minutes shorter – but it does not drag; the party music goes with a swing, the brass blare rudely and the timpani in particular have tremendous heft, emphasising the music’s kinship with Renaissance “stamping dance”.  The love music is affectionately contoured and caressed and builds to a satisfying climax. I do, however, find the basic pace of the Scherzo just a bit deliberate and flat-footed, even though it is very well played and contains some sparkling clashes and crashes. The Tomb music is riveting and the Oath finale is movingly delivered, Lloyd’s black bass coming through powerfully.

In truth, there is nothing especially characterful about this recording but almost everything – my mild reservation concerning the pace of the Scherzo apart – simply sounds right.

1990 James Levine, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, RIAS-Kammerchor & Ernst-Senff-Chor.
Anne Sofie von Otter, Philip Langridge, James Morris.
Deutsche Grammophon. Live digital, 1990

The best thing about this very-well-recorded live performance is the full-throated, yet delicate rendition of her strophes by Ann-Sofie von Otter in finest voice, singing excellent French, her outpourings suffused with passion yet evincing the haunting melancholy proleptic of the tragedy to come. The harp and string accompaniment to her singing is warm and sensitive. Philip Langridge sounds very convincingly French, and although the two German choruses aren’t especially so, they are very professional. It is a pity, therefore, that James Morris is nasal and woolly as Père Laurence – but I have never enjoyed his voice. Levine is typically gung-ho and exciting, even if he doesn’t really emulate a French style; unsurprisingly, he starts off so fast that it is garbled. The central section is beautiful, however – the party music is especially animated and the Love Music is opulently played – after all, this is the BPO.

I had to turn up the volume a bit but the recorded sound is otherwise excellent – you would hardly know this is live. This comes with a quadrilingual libretto. Overall, this is a very good but not exceptional recording marred by one so-so soloist, which means that excellent though Levine and von Otter are, this is not a front-runner.

1993 Colin Davis, Wiener Philharmoniker, Bavarian Radio Chorus.
Olga Borodina, Thomas Moser, Alastair Miles.
Philips/Newton Classics. Studio digital, June 1993, Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna.

This issue was reviewed by both Terry Barfoot (review) and John Quinn (review). Both are positive with mild caveats; TB mentions some extraneous noise, this being live – and there is a bit of ambient hum, the odd cough and traffic rumble – but not specifically the onset of Davis’ besetting habit of intrusive vocalisation, which had already set in by this stage of his career but is nowhere near as bad as it was to become.

Davis’ direction is more relaxed than was the case with his earlier recording; Roméo seul and the Scène d’amour in particular is beautifully played by the VPO and is largely free of Davis’ vocal accompaniment. I like the performance as a whole more than that 1969 account and his later Live LSO recording; it seems more flexible and lyrical, and avoids hysteria yet is still highly dramatic. Everything is executed as it should be. The brass are tremendous in the opening, depicting the Prince’s strictures and that sets the tone for superb playing throughout, the very occasional slip in synchronisation notwithstanding. The Bavarian Radio Choir is excellent; light and delicate in Part I and suitably “beefed up” for Part III.

Olga Borodina is steady and rich-voiced, if a little generalised in her articulation of the text. Her singing is lovely but she does quite find the emotional range of Hamari, Denize, Ludwig et al. I do not know why the clumsy-voiced Thomas Moser was chosen to sing Mercutio’s jeu d’esprit; his tone is fundamentally wrong – not in the least “Gallic” – and he belts it out unfeelingly. Alastair Miles is excellent as Père Laurence – resonant, expressive, mighty in his anger, outrage and admonition of the warring families – one of the best on record.

The slight deficiencies in the sound and two of the soloists lead me to relegate this to the “very good but not the best” category but on balance I don’t think anyone would be disappointed by it. You may hear it in its entirety on YouTube.

1995 John Eliot Gardiner, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Monteverdi Choir.
Catherine Robbin, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, Gilles Cachemaille.
Philips/PolyGram. Live digital, October 1995, The Colosseum, Watford, UK.

This “Version with original parts” includes sections that Berlioz ultimately dropped and is the only original instrument account. I cannot say I first hear so much difference, apart from a certain pleasing rawness in the brass, but then the whining, vibrato-free strings kick in and I really dislike them. The sound here is very good – big and spacious, almost over-resonant, with a considerable reverberation. The choir is excellent and properly distanced. However, the work starts much too fast so it’s not exciting, just frenetic; the same is true of the reprise of that music after the impressive brass fanfare; Berlioz’ music does not to be spiked like this. By contrast, the love music sounds coarse, slack and lifeless; it limps along feebly.

Catherine Robbin sounds rather…mature and scratchy-toned in her strophes. She sings feelingly but at times she seems to have caught – or been encouraged to nurture –  an element of Gardiner’s hysteria in the delivery of her outbursts, perhaps to prefigure the tragedy to come – but it is a mite unsettling. The choir is very emphatic, too – hardly ethereal or erotic. Jean-Paul Fouchécourt sounds very authentically French – hardly surprising – but not in a good way, as his voice is very small, throaty and white. Despite his way with the words, when I recall the  vocal opulence of francophone basses like José van Dam, Gilles Cachemaille’s dry, shouty timbre and voiceless crooning of high notes do nothing for me and the way the music wails before “Pauvres enfants” is enough to give me the screaming adjabs.

Others may like what was an experimental approach and be interested to hear what Berlioz discarded but for me this should have been left in the lab. You can hear it on YouTube – if you must…

2000 Colin Davis, London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus.
Daniela Barcellona, Kenneth Tarver, Orlin Anastassov.
LSO. Live digital, 1 January 2000, Barbican, London.

Oddly, after what to my ears was the perfect pacing of his Viennese recording above, for the opening tumult Davis reverts to the rushed tempo which for me mars the earliest one – it comes across as more of a scramble and even the LSO don’t quite keep up. Then we get those constant vocalisations – grunts, humming, tuneless singing – which are positively irritating. The infamous dry acoustic of the Barbican is no asset and the choir sounds distant. The first soloist we hear has an irritating wobble in her vibrato and that scuppers the repose of those strophes. The bass is similarly afflicted by a pulse and his gravelly timbre sounds more like that of a second-rate Boris Godunov than an Italian prelate. Kenneth Tarver makes a pleasingly fleet and stylish job of his Queen Mab aria but the cumulative disadvantages of this recording put it out of court, especially as Davis’ previous effort is so much better performed and recorded. I don’t think I need to belabour my points.

2003 Pierre Boulez, Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus.
Melanie Diener, Kenneth Tarver, Denis Sedov.
Deutsche Grammophon. Live digital, 14 October 2003.

A fierce but fleet and brilliant start by the Cleveland promises well for this recording and the live digital sound is equally deep and sparkling. It soon dawns on the listener, however, that this is a typically detached, dry-eyed approach from Boulez, whereby all the notes are played neatly but emotional investment is kept to a minimum. Some listeners may like that precision and restraint, however, and there is no denying that this is a beautifully played and detailed account, especially in passages such as the tripping, filigree Scherzo. The ball music is – typically for Boulez – fast and feverish and even accelerates but there isn’t much raw excitement in it and the Scène d’amour is distinctly low-key. The chorus is similarly light and graceful but hardly evocative of tired and tipsy revellers.

Melanie Diener is a soprano rather than the contralto Berlioz calls for, but she has a warm, smoky timbre and sings feelingly without necessarily putting my favourite singers of that role in the shade. Kenneth Tarver repeats his neat, elegant, if not especially French, Mercutio. Bass Denis Sidov’s tone is swallowed and woolly – how another reviewer can compare him to the clear-voiced Sam Ramey is beyond me – and a distinct blot on the set, especially as his intonation wavers, too.

This is by no means all bad, but my own preference is for a more demonstrative affect and better soloists. If you think you might prefer a lighter touch, sample this on YouTube before you buy.

2013 Valery Gergiev, London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Guildhall School Singers.
Olga Borodina, Kenneth Tarver, Evgeny Nikitin.
LSO Live digital, November 2013, Barbican, London.

Two MusicWeb colleagues reviewed this on its release in 2016 (review; review) and their response was muted; ST calls it “half-baked” and RK finds it exciting in parts but “low on grace” and “ponderous” in the quieter sections. I am not inclined to argue with either of them and won’t redundantly re-hash their findings but refer you to those reviews for more detailed proofs.

Olga Borodina’s voice by this stage of her career is beginning to evince an obtrusive vibrato and she has a somewhat stentorian and matronly manner. Evgeny Nikitin is similarly unsuitable: nasal and hard-edged of timbre without sounding the least suavely Gallic. This is Kenneth Tarver’s third recorded outing in the Queen Mab aria and while his delivery is much the same as previously, the Barbican acoustic is less kind to his relatively small voice.

Given the alternatives, this is not a viable option.

2014 Leonard Slatkin, Orchestre National de Lyon, Spirito/Chœurs et Soloistes de Lyon-Bernard Tétu.
Marion Lebègue, Julien Behr, Frédéric Caton.
Naxos. Studio stereo, 2014, Auditorium de Lyon.

This was admiringly reviewed by my colleague PCG five years ago. Things begin very well with a well-paced Combat although I have heard more imposing brass renditions of the Prince’s admonition and judgement; it has nowhere near the impact of the best, being rather too avuncular, and the Lyon orchestra, while perfectly competent, is not as sonorous as its best rivals – although this might also have something to do with the slightly detached recording acoustic. On the other hand, the small chorus sounds as if it has been recorded very closely – indeed, too closely; balances are a bit odd and individual voices obtrude, some things are a bit too quiet and others a little too prominent. I find that the orchestra sound in general is too recessed in the set pieces and there is always some ambient “rushing” noise in the background which is too audible if you are listening on headphones.

In general, I have never been much of a Slatkin fan but he seems admirably attuned to the Berliozian idiom here and the Part II music unfolds very satisfactorily, but the pounding rhythms of the Capulet ball music are somewhat underplayed; I simply need more raw energy in this music than Slatkin imparts.

Marion Lebègue has a pleasing voice: dark but not matronly; I also like the strongly characterised and firmly voiced singing of Julien Behr who is clearly a native speaker although he becomes a little husky and throaty on loud high notes. Frédéric Caton, too, has a pleasant bass of no special amplitude or profundity; you would not object to his smooth delivery but nor is he very memorable compared with more glamorously-voiced singers who have recorded his role.

This is undoubtedly a fine performance but unusually, as I am generally more tolerant of the vagaries sound engineering, that is for me here something of an issue when I compare this to more sonically grateful accounts and I find Slatkin’s direction to be understated in the big numbers; nothing about this is exactly riveting.

2014 Robin Ticciati, Swedish Radio Orchestra & Choir
Katija Dragojevic, Andrew Staples, Alastair Miles.
Linn. Live digital, 3-8 November 2014, Berwaldhallen, Stockholm, Sweden.

This was very positively reviewed on its issue by my colleagues ST (review) and JQ (review), though they had some reservations about the singing and the application of minimal vibrato, making both the orchestral and choral sound smaller, leaner and somewhat lacking in the voluptuous Romanticism I associate with this score. This is a direct, dramatic account which allows for transparency, revealing individual instrumental lines, but it also leaves me feeling a bit short-changed in the Big Tunes department, especially in Roméo seul and the Scène d’amour, when strings whine rather than sing and climaxes fail to bloom. I find the Queen Mab Scherzo to be rather dull, lacking spring and colour – although to some ears that lightness and restraint are attractive.

Both the choir and tenor Andrew Staples sound authentically French; the former is atmospherically increasingly distanced in the post-party scene but isn’t especially homogeneous in sound – as with Gardelli and Slatkin individual voices stick out – and the latter is very nasal, which I suppose for some signals the very Gallic quality for which I have just praised him. Katija Dragojevic has an unwieldy, voice which is not intrinsically beautiful and has a fairly heavy, slightly unsteady vibrato which tends to kick in at the end of phrases; she is not my favourite in this part. Alastair Miles here reprises Père Laurence over two decades since he recorded it for Colin Davis and I am afraid that shows; he is in less flexible and resonant voice and his vibrato, too, has loosened somewhat, but he still makes a noble sound.

The accumulation of these flaws means that I am considerably less taken with this smaller-scale, “period”-influenced recording than my colleagues, especially in the context of considering so many better versions – but you may sample this on YouTube and decide for yourself.

2016 Andrew Davis, BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus.
Michèle Losier, Samuel Boden, David Soar.
Chandos. Studio digital, 25-25 January 2016, Fairfield Halls, Croydon

Dave Billinge reviewed this very enthusiastically in 2016 – and he shares my attachment to the Ozawa version as our benchmark recording, so his praise for this one suggest that we could agree on its high quality – but then again, he praises Gardiner’s, which I do not like at all. Such are the vagaries of personal taste. Certainly, on first listening I immediately found myself more drawn into it than the preceding Ticciati account; it is painted on a larger canvas and the orchestral sound is warmer and fuller. I also immediately fall for Michèle Losier’s sensuous singing of her strophes; her flickering vibrato, steady legato and light but honied timbre is considerably more to my liking than Ticciati’s singer. However, Sanuel Boden tenor, though neat enough, is tiny and a tad tremulous. David Soar is a competent, sombre Père Laurence, first grave and steady but a bit grainy and gravelly especially in the upper reaches of his voice, which sound strained, and a pulse or beat develops in his line as he becomes more animated. The BBC Chorus does not sound very French and I have heard more accurate intonation and unanimity from other choirs than they manage. Andrew Davies’ beat and phrasing first seem rather restrained in the big, central, Capulet garden scene but he is keeping his powder dry and builds adroitly; however, he is not especially abetted by what I hear almost as a veil over the recorded sound compared with more vividly engineered recordings – which is odd, given that that is not usually a complaint one can level at Chandos issues.

All in all, despite its virtues, I do not find this to be an especially striking or competitive account; it’s a bit flat and patchy. Sample it on YouTube.

2017 Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony & Chorus.
Sasha Cooke, Nicholas Phan, Luca Pisaroni.
SFS Media. Live digital, 28 June – 1 July 2017, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco.

MC reviewed this very favourably in 2016 and I happily endorse his recommendation.

Tilson Thomas here takes a steadier approach to the opening combat music, and I prefer the menace he generates over the hysteria of the more frenetic versions. He is aided by sound of extraordinary depth, clarity and richness, completely free of extraneous noise despite this being live – although it is a composite recording and could also have been patched from rehearsals – and an orchestra and chorus of top quality. I have never thought of him as a Berlioz specialist but he certainly sounds right at home in this music, conferring a sense of unity and natural progression upon what can emerge as a fractured or at least awkwardly episodic work. He eschews extremes and lets the music breathe; the playing of the central Romeo Alone-Festivity-Love Music sections is respectively as beguiling, thrilling and seductive as any I know and seamlessly integrated into a dramatic whole. He makes exponents such as Boulez sound chilly indeed. The chorus sounds properly “tired and emotional” but still delicate; I only wish a better distancing effect could have been achieved but this is a live performance and not a recording, so such tricks of that kind aren’t really possible unless a body of the choir is physically removed or retreats.

The weakness in more recent recordings is often in the casting of the soloists but in mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke we hear a beautiful, mellow, yet youthful, narrator; Nicholas Phan makes a similarly fresh, appealing job of his Mab aria, even if the oscillation of his vibrato is approaching the edge of the desired tolerance; Luca Pisaroni is likewise fresh-voiced and expressive; his remonstration fired at the warring families is powerful and dramatic, if without quite the massive dignity of predecessors such as Ghiaurov, Lloyd and van Dam but still appropriately deep-toned, a pleasure to listen to and without any irritating vocal habits.

This was the inevitable surprise of my survey. You may hear it in its entirety on YouTube.

2023 John Nelson, Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg, Chœur de l’OnR.
Joyce DiDonato, Cyrille Dubois, Christopher Maltman.
Warner Classics/Erato. Digital studio, 3-9 June, 2023, Strasbourg.

I have enjoyed John Nelson in Berlioz and both the sound and playing here are first class, but following the example of Colin Davis’ first recording, his opening is so fast as to make the combat sound scrambled rather than merely hectic – and like the LSO, the Strasbourg orchestra struggles to cope. At the other extreme, I hear nothing especially engaging about Nelson’s rather perfunctory treatment of the central Scène d’amour.

Furthermore, I have severe issues with the voices of all three lead singers here which for me instantly puts this most recent recording out of court; I am mystified by the admiration for Joyce DiDonato’s small, tremolo-ridden mezzo-soprano, Cyrille Dubois’ likewise caprino-style, nasal, constricted tenor timbre which never opens out and Christopher Maltman’s wobbly, groaning  baritone without proper tonal centre; his vibrato is out of control and his French is poor. Others might find differently and that is their right; perhaps I am in a minority – but I care not and think that after more than fifty years of interest in it and even some training myself, I know a little about good vocal technique. This is a complete non-starter for me.


I acknowledge above that the undertaking of this survey has revealed to me that there are more good recordings than I had realised; very few are without merit, although most of the later ones are inferior with one notable exception: if digital sound is a priority, Tilson Thomas’ superb modern account is a clear winner and was the revelation of this conspectus. However, there is still a qualitative hierarchy overall: the live mono recording by Maazel continues to exercise a certain fascination over me and I recommend it at least as a supplement, but for a mainstream stereo studio recording, as a first choice I would opt – as I always knew I would, even before embarking upon this survey –  for one of two recorded within a couple of years of each other in what now seems like the recording Golden Age of the 70s: Maazel 1975 and Ozawa, with Muti and Inbal as honourable back-ups from the 80s, according to taste – especially as the last two are more readily available. I am hard-pushed to choose between my two favourites but ultimately Ozawa emerges as the more moving, thrilling and exponent of this miraculous score  – and that is also my little tribute to a great conductor who has only recently left us.

Ralph Moore