Les nuits d’été, La mort de Cléopâtre
Karen Cargill, mezzosoprano
Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Robin Ticciati, conductor
Linn Records, 2013
If it is possible to find a guiding tread for at least part of this recording, collecting three beautiful and highly evocative works by French composer Hector Berlioz, this is a literary one, since both Les nuits d’été and the symphony Roméo et Juliette reveal Berlioz’s interest in this field. It is known that he admired works of many English and French authors, among whom Scott, Byron, Chateaubriand and Hoffmann are the most illustrious names, and that many of his major works have been influenced by texts in prose or verses (it is enough to remember Harold en Italie as an example).
The vocal cycle Les nuits d’été is now one of Berlioz’s most acclaimed works, but it has been disregarded and fell into oblivion until the XX century. Berlioz wrote the six songs which compose Les nuits d’été on poems by writer and personal friend Théophile Gautier, who for his part considered Berlioz the representative of «the romantic musical idea». The title of the cycle was Berlioz’s idea, but it is not clear why he chose it, since the first song is set in spring and not in summer. Anyway, in origin the composer thought to set the songs to music for voice and piano. In this form, the cycle was published in 1841, with a dedication to Louise Bertin, daughter of Louis Bertin, editor of the Journal des débats where Berlioz published his articles and criticism.
Five of the songs rearranged for orchestra between 1855 and 1856. Absence was orchestrated before, in 1843, expressly for the mezzosoprano Marie Recio (later she became the composer’s second wife), who sang it for the first time in Leipzig, during a tour of Germany with Berlioz. However, the composer heard only Absence and Le spectre de la rose in orchestral form and it seems that the cycle was not performed in its entirety during Berlioz’s lifetime. Berlioz transposed the second and third songs to lower keys in the orchestral version, which was published in Germany with individual dedications to many singers.
Shakespeare’s plays supplied the basis of Berlioz’s three major works: the opera Béatrice et Bénédict, the overture Roi Lear and Roméo et Juliette. This last is the piece which in the present recording divides as an ideal intermezzo the two vocal works, Les nuits d’été and La mort de Cléopâtre and it is performed here without words.
Berlioz called his Roméo et Juliette a “symphonie dramatique” or a “choral symphony” and it is very important from the point of view of his musical growth because it testifies his discovery of the expressive power of orchestral music, as the composer himself explains in the preface accompanying the work, and, as the New Grove Dictionary states, «it moves well away from the purely symphonic realm towards that of opera», even if the difference between the two was clearly in Berlioz’s mind. It is composed for a large orchestra and requires three soloists, small choral groups, and a full chorus for the finale.
The realization of the symphony was possible thanks to a gift of 20,000 francs by Niccolò Paganini who was so moved by a performance of Harold en Italie held at the Paris Conservatoire in 1838 that he knelt before Berlioz calling him the heir of Beethoven. Thanks to that gift, Berlioz could concentrate on composition and the symphony was performed for the first time in 1839.
The last composition of the album is another vocal work, La mort de Cléopâtre, written for the Prix de Rome awarded by the French Institute to win the substantial prize of financial support provided by the city for five years. Berlioz tried to win many times and Cléopâtre was his attempt for 1829, when he had to compose a cantata on words by Pierre-Ange Vieillard de Boismartin. He did not succeed and first prize came only the next year with La mort de Sardanapale, of which only a fragment survives now, and the music of Cléopâtre was re-used in other works.
The performers of this recording are the excellent mezzosoprano Karen Cargill and the fine conductor Robin Ticciati, who give one of the most wonderful interpretations of Berlioz’s works I have ever heard. As for Cargill, she is a marvellous singer with warm and expressive voice, with just a hint of vibrato which is not annoying and is rather characteristic. Her voice does not show any problem with tessitura (listen for example to Le spectre de la rose, where this feature is more evident than ever) and has instead an enviable homogeneity, which make her singing melodious and caressing. She is able to express all the feelings but the one which is more outstanding considering the timbre of her voice is melancholy, as in Le spectre de la rose and Sur les lagunes, while Absence becomes almost a prayer for its confidence. On the other hand, the joy expressed in Villanelle and in L’île inconnue has the peculiarity to be heartfelt and simple. If in Les nuits d’été Cargill is usually light-hearted, La mort de Cléopâtre gives her the chance to show her dramatic temperament and she senses the desperation of the queen with great insight.
As for the conductor, Ticciati is not inferior to the singer in the performance of these pieces. He conducts Les nuits d’été with delicacy and makes the music sound like an uninterrupted flow from the liveliness of Villanelle to the disconsolation of Sur les lagunes. His attention to the many nuances of Roméo et Juliette is astonishing too and he shares with the singer the dramatic intensity in La mort de Cléopâtre, which becomes even tragic at the beginning of Méditation. His can be considered a fine achievement too.