Michael Spyres’s singing of Les Nuits d’été is rather special, his agile and light tenor, if with a darker seam when required, searching the beauty and emotions of these Théophile Gautier settings (the French texts included in the booklet, translations can be downloaded), the opening ‘Villanelle’ perfectly paced at an articulate Colin Davis-like moderate tempo for syllabic and instrumental clarity, the remaining five songs also made compelling, the renditions sporting a wide dynamic range, Spyres in ravishing voice, caressing the words, John Nelson offering sympathetic accord, although, at times, a less-forward balance for the singer (irrespective of how good Spyres is), and greater presence afforded the Strasbourg Philharmonic, would have been welcome.
Nevertheless, the music and its making are of the highest order, Nelson going on to illuminate Harold in Italy (also from October last year), not a viola concerto but a Symphony in four parts with viola obbligato, although – similar cavil – Timothy Ridout, for all his excellence, not least rich tone and some magical pianissimos, is just the wrong side of a concert-hall balance. The performance, however, is full of good things, a story being told and a relish of those things that distinguish Berlioz as his true self (Nelson has been tuned-in to this composer for years with a discography to prove it), a painterly traversal of evocation and adventures, tempos well-judged, the second-movement march flowingly spot-on for Allegretto, Ridout varying the viola’s repetitive arpeggios, and the final orgy is crisply abandoned, with something saved for a thrilling yet incisive and glowering coda via a subito accelerando at 11:08. Erato 5054197196850 is released on November 18.
What a pity that Michael Spyres’s impressive voice is so closely miked here.
For ‘Les Nuits d’été’ an airier acoustic is surely more desirable – as for example in Regine Crespin’s Decca recording, in which the Suisse Romande Orchestra is directed by Ernest Ansermet. The balance there between soloist and orchestra is IMHO close to ideal, capturing voice and orchestra with real transparency.
That recording, which was released in 1962, belies the passing of the years and must surely be counted among the great Berlioz recordings of all time, both vocally and in terms of engineering.