CLASSICAL MUSIC / Double Play: French fancies

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The Independent Culture
BERLIOZ: Songs - Francoise Pollet, Anne Sophie von Otter, John Aler, Thomas Allen, Cord Garben (piano) (DG 435 860-2; two CDs)

WHEN it came to songs, Berlioz was no Schubert. There are one or two fine things apart from Les Nuits d'ete (not included here), especially the justly admired La Mort d'Ophelie and the unjustly ignored, thrillingly melodramatic La Belle Isabeau - both sung superbly by Anne Sophie von Otter. But straight after that pathos-rich Ophelia narrative comes Zade with its ludicrous clicking castanets and soprano Francoise Pollet showing a little strain at the top of her register.

The best way to enjoy these is not in sequence, but one or two at a time, and I imagine most listeners will be drawn more to the second disc - later songs, more deeply felt and with more adventurous piano-writing (I don't care what the voice-buffs say, it does matter). That said, and that one reservation about Francoise Pollet registered, I can't imagine a better opportunity to explore this out-of-the-way repertoire coming along. There are glimpses of the familiar wild genius here, and, on the whole, the singers, pianist and guest instrumentalists make the most of them. And when he's relaxing, as in the early romances, the young Berlioz can be very charmant - though he wouldn't have approved of an adjective like that.

Stephen Johnson

PRIME Berlioz - only smaller? Yes and no. There are the slight, fanciful ditties of his youth, the ancient airs elevated to the salon, two, sometimes three voices intertwining (particularly effective in one song about friendship), guitar or harp rather than piano lending an exotic air or (as when Mephistopheles serenades Marguerite) a sardonic tang. Fleeting pleasures. Then again, there are those poems where not even a Berlioz can work miracles. Others are transformed in settings which extend their reach through unexpected and imaginative colours - an obbligato cello or horn or even chorus. The tenor voice fares well: 'Elegie en prose' is one of a handful of truly great songs, the exalted vocal line ringing out over boiling piano tremolos. John Aler excels, very much the lean and heady sound Berlioz must have imagined when he wrote 'Je crois en vous' and 'Le Jeune Patre breton'. Then there is Anne Sofie von Otter, dreaming of Ophelia's last moments (so much more than a song, this) or living, breathing the homesickness and enchantment of 'La Captive' - among the most perfectly formed of Berlioz melodies. My only real disappointment is Francoise Pollet, whose ample voice doesn't always sit comfortably in this context. 'Le Roi de Thule' is wanting of a purer, softer, ease of inflection. And Thomas Allen could do with an extra couple of bottom notes for 'Le Chasseur danois'. But a fascinating collection: at best, Berlioz, the last true romantic, takes us places we've never been before.

Edward Seckerson

NIELSEN: Orchestral Works - Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra / Gennady Rozhdestvensky (Chandos CHAN 9287)

YOU CAN tell that a composer is established when people start peering into the darker recesses of his desk drawers. Along with some relatively (though not adequately) known short concert pieces - the tone poems Saga-drom, Pan and Syrinx and the glorious Helios overture - are some real rarities. I'm not sure the Symphonic Rhapsody (an early stab at a symphony) proves much more than that the young Nielsen was right to discard it and try again; the roughly contemporary prelude to Andreas Munch's play An Evening at Giske is better, but still nowhere near top-drawer Nielsen.

Later here certainly means more rewarding. The surprisingly Vaughan Williams-ish Bohemian-Danish folk-tune for strings is a charming miniature, and then there's the weird but unforgettable paraphrase on 'Nearer My God to Thee' for wind-band. But it's the three known pieces, plus the Imaginary Journey to the Faroe Islands, that I would return to most often.

In these performances, Rozhdestvensky has his moments of stirring empathy with Nielsen's unique brand of scene-setting and story-telling, but there are as many places where the engagement feels less than wholehearted, and the tempo for the main allegro of Helios is fatally slow - Apollo's chariot never gets out of second gear. The curiosity rating is high, but non-Nielsen specialists should start elsewhere - the symphonies and concertos still have to be the best point of entry. SJ

THE FIRST and last sounds we hear are among the most poetic in all Nielsen: the deep hum of a pedal C and nebulous horns gradually illuminating the horizon at the start of his Helios overture; and the transformation of the nymph Syrinx into a fragile reed (a haze of violin harmonics and the eerie glissandos of a lone cello) at the close of Pan and Syrinx. Two small masterpieces. There's a third: Saga-drom, notable for a mellifluous cadenza where all creatures great and small are briefly of one voice. But the real attraction here will be the curios: from Nielsen's first attempts at a symphony (poor material, spirited gamesmanship) to a euphonious wind-band paraphrase of 'Nearer My God to Thee' with a shock ending worthy of Charles Ives (whose favourite hymn it was). For the rest, innocuous lollipops in performances showing only occasional signs of Rozhdestvensky's lazy beat. ES