Table d’écoute: Hector Berlioz, Nuits d’été op. 7
Host: Anne Mattheeuws
Guests: Martine Dumont-Mergeay, Camille de Rijck and Claude Jottrand
November 20, 2011
Take an hour of your time to hear last week’s edition of the show Table d’écoute on Musiq3, a radio channel of the Belgian francophone public broadcaster RTBF. It’s a must-hear and I hope they’ll release it as a podcast so I can save it off line for later revisits. The opinionators – a welcome mix of female and male voices (we’ve heard too many the all-male panels of cultural commentators) – are comparing four recordings of Berlioz’s song cycle and introduce a fifth recording mid-way through the show. The recordings are eliminated one by one to come to a tentative essential, a primus inter pares.
Even if you don’t do French, you will enjoy the show due to the recordings played and the process of selection. For everybody else with some or considerable French, you can pause the player, go back, move forward, the player is amenable to these kinds of adjustments. It will absolutely be worth your while. Find the show here. An ad will greet you, which you can easily escape by clicking on the top right corner, where it says Musiq3.
To aid your listening pleasure, I have here some of the highlights. The text of the Nuits both in French and translated you can find on the ever reliable usual place.
At the beginning, we hear a bit about how the work came about. The cycle is written for three different voices, yet today it’s performed and recorded primarily as a single singer piece, with some songs transposed. Téophile Gautier’s poems had only been recently published, so Berlioz obviously didn’t hesitate choosing the writing by his immediate contemporaries. MDM has an interesting theory on why Berlioz put the lightest songs first and last: it was a concession to the audience of the day; we’re talking about Paris un peu frivole, the audiences who think, Yes we can cry, but all must end on a high note.
The host first plays the Villanelle in four versions A, B, C and D, in the order of mezzo, soprano, mezzo, soprano.
MDM: Immediately obvious that this cycle is a much more difficult task for the soprano than for the mezzo. With a soprano, we get less satisfaction from the text; with a mezzo, we understand everything. Version A is very good; the voice a little affecté, without the freshness that you might expect, but a beautiful, refined voice, great attention to text. A little ‘old-fashioned’, but all the same beautiful.
CJ: In overall agreement with MDM. Re. old-fashioned, he noticed the singer in A version rolls the Rs, which was at the time of the work acceptable practise but to us sounds maybe archaic… Orchestra excellent in Version A, can hear all the details.
Version B: MDM: the voice is sublime, but we don’t understand a single word. Also, the audio balance between the orchestra and the voice was considerably tipped in favour of the voice.
Version C (which the host characterized earlier as having peut-être un clin d’œil – the version with a twinkle in the eye): MDM found a little throwing, baffling (désarçonnant). First, the tempo very fast; orchestra-wise, there’s something martial about the treatment. BUT there’s a poetic sense, the excellent pronunciation, and although she’s not terribly moved by it, it’s a good take.
CJ: Likes the voice, its rich timbre, BUT there’s coquetterie in the singing. Yes there’s twinkle in the eye, there’s humour, but this kind of intervention in this type of mélodies not desirable, in his opinion.
Version D: MDM: voice pretty, fresh, of great quality, but general impression: it takes too long, it is heavy, it lacks spirit. CJ: didn’t like it, voice not free.
CR: defends the version D. He describes the voice as “whiteish”, “virginal” in colour. Villanelle is quiet before the storm, so this lightness appropriate. After the Villanelle, the drama ensues. He also appreciates that this voice is something of a manifesto for lighter voices in the Nuits repertoire, which is often recorded by the heavier voices. Loved other versions too, irrationally and ardently drawn primarily to B, likes the atmosphere in C.
Le spectre de la rose (originally written for contralto, reminds the host) was then played.
CR: Difficult to choose between two divinities: between A & B. All perfect in each, diction, timbre, musicality; has no reservations.
CJ: Expresses a preference for A, because of the mezzo tessitura. Also, the orchestra intense, precise. Last phrase of the song shouldn’t be exaggerated, not chest-voiced, should be simple, and this is perfectly rendered. The B a little too light for his taste.
MDM: Version A fantastic; loves the way the last strophe is delivered, from the peaks of ‘J’arrive’ to the depths of ‘jalouser’.
CR took to task MDM for complaining about the sopranos “mangling the diction” – he says he can hear all. She replies: it’s not that the diction is rotten (ok, she’ll withdraw the word “mangle”), but that the text in the soprano version is always secondary. We hear the glorious voice first, and then the text under it, as not as important. In Version A, the text is as alive as the music.
CJ: Orchestra under-invested. Slow tempo, but the orchestra phones it in. As regards voice, we hear that it’s a more mature voice, a wider vibrato occasionally, nice autumnal colours easily conveyed, but maybe not the same quality as version A for me. Version D: very fast, with vigour, a new concept for Le spectre, more heroic, incisive than usually heard – which works, surprisingly.
MDM: Intelligent singing, but orchestra pas très inspiré. Version D was much more convincing this time.
CR: Most touched by the version C – as the song itself, this version is about the passing of time. This is obvious in singing; seriousness, intelligence more than compensate for the voice that is not in its prime. So you recognize that this is an old voice? – the host. No, I wouldn’t call it that, I’d call it a voice of maturity, voice that lost some of its brass and facility for which it was known. In Le spectre, the voice is walked from bottom to top, and an older voice who lost its unity of registers will show it. Also, there’s overinvestment in text in Version C, which I salute as a quality.
Host: She camps it up occasionally (elle cabotine un peu… ). CR: Yes… But more importantly, the now obvious fragility of the instrument contributes a lot to the performance here; this mélodie is a mélodie of nostalgia. And for all these reasons, the version C is great.
Version D: less immediately perfect and spectacular, but it says something interesting… less seductive than A & B, less moving than C but still has something to say.
On to Sur les lagunes – Lamento (excerpt played around the “Ah! sans amour s’on aller sur la mer”). As an extra, a Version E is played: deep, vast, dark, utterly gorgeous and young voice (DtO comment)
MDM: A & B great quality; Version A remains accomplished from all points of view; C: beautiful, good position for the text, better organized orchestra than in Le spectre; D not really inspired, they didn’t give meaning to the text as much as they should. E: loves it, low voice with luminous highs, sumptuous orchestra.
CJ: version A most theatrical; orchestra dramatic and voice falls into it very seductively and coherently. B: some reservations. C: very expressive; huge emphasis on text pronunciation; loses a little fluidity of phrase, text too proclaimed, and it loses some of its poetry. D: a little flat. E: very pretty. Darker-sounding voice. A B & E should stay, C should be voted off.
CR: Version A he loves without reserve; C continues to overinvest into text.
[eventually a reluctant consensus emerges to vote C off the list, and reveal what it is]
CV: But we say goodbye to it with a bouquet of flowers. (Swedish flowers, somebody interjects)
CR: Version A is less at ease here, surprisingly. E has a vibrato which removes it from his favour; he remains faithful to B, and continues rooting for the outsider D.
CJ: Version E fulfills the promise; singer takes all the space she can, magnificent.
[As clouds of reservations start gathering around Version D, CR comes to its defence]
CR: The usual dramaturgic choice for Les nuits: it’s done by the grandes dames, it’s a diva vehicle. Whereas here in D we have une jeune fille en fleur. It’s original in its approach, and fills a discographic void.
[Nobody buys it, and D gets voted off the list and revealed]
MDM: Version E is the most accomplished. Version A is sumptuous if a little deceiving, highs aren’t so pretty, pronunciation neither; Version B: not enough orchestra heard, though the voice sublime; text as usual poorly conveyed. E version: energy, life, most complete.
CR: E shows incredible temperament. In B, orchestra sacrificed.
Host: re B: here it’s almost as if we’re talking about Le spectre de la musique de Berlioz, without an orchestra.
CR: Inexplicable that the recoding / miking team decided to relegate the orchestra to background.
CJ: Loved A’s orchestra; the version E had more suitable tessitura than A. Overall, however, if we look at all 6 songs, A is a better version.
MDM: Agrees. Villanelle is important, but Sans Spectre, on est mort.
The host reveals the E version. The panel allegedly did not recognize it until then! (In a tweet answer to my disbelieving question, CR confirms that this was indeed the case.)
CR: Nor surprised that they didn’t recognize it: it shows what the difference between then and now is. There was nothing that that voice could not do.
Version B revealed. The panel chooses the Version A as the winning disc. I, of course, disagree, but what a majestic ride this was!