Berlioz' marvelous orchestral song-cycle Nuits d'ete is usually sung by a soprano or mezzo, but Berlioz' original intention was to distribute the six songs among as many as four male and female singers.
Colin Davis conducted a performance with four alternating soloists for his Philips recording (6500.009), but there are no really great voices among them, and I'm always found the tenor, Frank Patterson, uncomfortable and off-putting in the delicious opening Villanelle .
Columbia now has issued a recording in which Pierre Boulez (one thinks of the conductor as presiding in this work, not merely accompanying) has effected a more than attractive compromise by using two soloists, both of whom are great voices.
Yevonne Minton and Stuart Burrows alternate in Nuits d'ete , and Minton is heard with Boulez in Berlioz's Mort de Cleopatre on the same disc (M34563). The mezzo, who has shown intimations of greatness in the concert hall and on records, has never been more impressive than she is here. But this observation comes to mind only some time after the actual listening - during which the all-consuming impact of the music overrides any awareness of interpretive middlemen.
Minton's realization of her three songs in the cycle - Le Spectre de la rose, Sur les lagunes and L'lle inconnue - is total, in terms of sheer, voluptuous vocal beauty, emotional conviction and the mysterious interweaving factor that makes such a performance add up to a whole greater than the sum of its identifiable parts. In Cleopatre , too, she is a marvel, matching the unforgettable Jennie Tourel in dramatic thrust and outdistancing her comfortably in the production of gorgeous sound. One thinks of the little Lotte Lehmann gave her autobiography: "More than Singing."
Even before I heard Frank Patterson's recording, I had always regared the Villanelle as a piece that would be a mistake for a male singer, just as the charming Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht? in Mahler's Knaden Wunderhorn collection is. Dietrich Fischer Dieskau only confirmed this feeling about the Mahler song in his recording of it, but Burrows, a tenor especially well suited to Berlioz' style (as anyone knows who was fortunate enough to hear his remarkable performenace in The Damnation of Faust with Solti and the Chicago Symphony, or the recent Requiem recording under Bernstein), immediately reverses that notion about the Villanelle , which he makes an irresistible invitation to what follows.
Burrows' other two contributions to the cycle are no less distinguished. Boulez' leadership in both works is aflame with Berliozian inspiration (what a piece Cleopatre can be, after all!), the BBC Symphony Orchestra responds magnificently, and Columbia's sound is little short of sensational. A glorious record. Columnia, surprisingly, has failed to include printed texts - but perhaps this omission affects only review copies.
A certain documentary note is missing from another new Columbia release, the recording of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring by the New York Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta (XM34557, encoded for SQ quadraphony). Although there is a garish, hairy-chested photograph of Mehta on the cover, there is no note to point out that this is his first recording with the orchestra he takes ove as music director next fall. It is, in any event, a rather undistinguished performance - better played than Mehta's earlier recording of the work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but terribly romanticized and at odds with the crisp straightforwardness of the music.
What is distinguished about this release is the annotation by Peter Eliot Stone, who actually manages to shed some new light on the old Sacre story and to balance his scholarship with a most engaging yet ever condescending style. Stone has been doing this sort of thing in his liner notes for various companies for the last few years, and there ought to be some sort of formal recognition of the way he has elevated the standards for his fellow practitioners.