BERLIOZ: 7 OVERTURES (Les francs-juges. Waverley. Le roi Lear. Le carnaval romain. BČatrice et BČnČdict. Le corsaire. Benvenuto Cellini)
Staatskapelle Dresden; Colin Davis/cond.
BMG/RCA 68790 [F] [DDD] TT: 75:15

Thirty-odd years ago, Philips issued a collection of Berlioz Overtures conducted by Colin Davis (not yet knighted) with the London Symphony Orchestra, both stiff and blowzy. It was one of their several collaborations in music by Berlioz, works large as well as small, hailed transatlantically at the time as the ne plus ultra.

I was in the minority then; rehearing some of those performances today—especially big works like RomČo et Juliette or La damnation de Faust —I find myself unable to recant. Davis was, however, as solid a conductor of Symphonie fantastique as virtually any of the dozens who've recorded it since Pierre Monteux's Paris version, now nearly 70 years old (manneristic then, manneristic still, despite the worship of it by a coven of colleagues). Where Davis shone brightest was in his recordings of Berlioz's operas: Benvenuto Cellini, the two-part, five-hour Les troyennes, and that intimate swan song,  BČatrice and BČnČdict. Odd that he was so unconvincing in Puccini and Verdi, or po'faced in Mozart, recorded during his term as Solti's successor at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

After his London tenure, he conducted regularly in Boston, Munich, and Dresden (as honorary leader of the magnificent Staatskapelle, not to be confused with the lesser Dresden Philharmonic). Now, together, they have recorded most of the contents on his old Philips SD. And done so wonderfully! REB willingly relinquished custody, but were the website mine I'd have hoarded it like Fafner.

What it's not is Charles Munch's free-wheeling, Alfa-Romeo sort of Berlioz—exhilarating but, by the fourth cut on a RCA Gold reissue, just a little fatiguing. It lacks the early Rob Roy Overture (which Berlioz raided for later works) that made Alexander Gibson's venerable Chandos collection noteworthy. And Les francs-juges (for an opera never written) lacks the ringside excitement of Solti's one-two punch on a Chicago Symphony recording that London withheld for years—finally available as a pendant to Symphonie fantastique in Vol. 5 of "The Solti Collection."

Otherwise, Davis' timings in Franc-juges, Waverley and  King Lear are virtually the same as before, although BMG counts the time between cuts as part of previous performances. What's different now is a rhythmic sinuousness missing in the '60s, a willingness to let loose the dogs of hell when asked (the end of Franc-juges out-Solti's Solti), and playing of extraordinary beauty, tonal substance and the utmost nuance by his Dresdeners. BMG has recorded them spaciously and cleanly in the same Lukas-Kirche that Deutsche Grammophon can't make work for Giuseppe Sinopoli.

You shouldn't want to give away Munch's legerdemain, or any number of vivacious performances by prewar British conductors being remastered on CD (Beecham, Harty, even Sir Henry Wood). But you can safely trade off Dutoit/Montreal's pallid playing the same program (plus the prelude to  Les troyennes, which believe me, isn't much of a bonus). Don't be put off by Sir Colin's recent plaster-of-Paris Sibelius or other heavy-handed examples of knighthood at 70. He has rejoined the list of Berlioz champions with lance, steed and Germany's loveliest orchestra at the ready. Maybe we'll finally get that Fantastique he's tried at least twice (or is it three times?) to sustain from start to finish.

R.D. (Sept. 1999)