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Summer Nights

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Berlioz, Nuits d'été, Bernarda Fink, Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin, K. Nagano
(August 14, 2007)
An Ionarts favorite singer, mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink, has drawn attention for several of her recordings (Canciones Argentinas, the Jacobs Clemenza di Tito, the Minkowski Hippolyte et Aricie). It was normal then for Ionarts to be looking forward to La Fink's new release on Harmonia Mundi of Hector Berlioz's arch-Romantic, exotiste song cycle Nuits d'été, op. 7. Musicologist Julian Rushton once asked the question (in an essay that is the fifth chapter of Berlioz Studies) of whether this set of six songs should be considered a cycle or merely a collection. It is hard to speak of a definitive version of the work, since the original 1841 conception for piano and voice (either tenor or mezzo-soprano) was altered significantly in the orchestrated version in 1856, in terms of keys and intended voice part. The poems by Théophile Gautier (1811-1872) do not form a coherent narrative and lend themselves more to performance by a group of voices than a single one, which is how they are usually performed now. Even so, memorable recordings have come from superlative voices, always those who combine a French-sensitive approach to the gorgeous poetry and the luscious melodic line.

Nuits d'été:
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Susan Graham ($9.97)

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Véronique Gens ($10.97)
In front of the sensitive playing of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, led by Kent Nagano, Fink slinks her way through the languid melodies, although in strict terms, this is a slightly faster performance than many others. The second song, Le spectre de la rose, comes in at 6:27, sounding almost edgy by comparison to the utterly relaxed Régine Crespin, for example, at 7:08 (watch via YouTube). By contrast, the lament of Sur les lagunes is slowed down to near-stasis at 6:30, even more luxuriant than Crespin. One thing that helps the dusky sound of this performance is the transpositions: for example, in Villanelle, Fink sings in the key of F, a third below the key Berlioz stipulated in both versions of the cycle, A major.

As for the rest of this disc, the opening set of the Cinq mélodies populaires grecques lose much of their freshness in these orchestral versions. My ears still prefer Elly Ameling's readings of this set (Erato ECD 75324, apparently no longer available). The other selection, Ravel's Shéhérazade, seems to belong more naturally with the Berlioz. Tristan Klingsor's poems, while not as exquisite as the Gautier, are in the same exotiste vein. Fink's velvety voice strikes the same simultaneously shy and brazen pose as the Ingres Grande Odalisque on the CD cover. It is a worthy addition for lovers of the mélodie.

Harmonia Mundi HMC 901932

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Berlioz, Les Nuits d'été, Régine Crespin, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, E. Ansermet
(remastered January 9, 2007)
The late Régine Crespin's recording of Nuits d'été with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande is one of the best available. Its recent remastering has encouraged a reassessment of that reputation, which stands after close listening. The incomparable clarity of tone (the opening bars of Absence, for example, are a knockout) and the loving diction of Gautier's superb poetry make this the version to own, and at $11.98 in this re-release, it is hard to beat in price. The other issue in choosing a recording of Nuits d'été is that the work only takes about a half-hour: what else to program with it? The Crespin disc is also superior in that department, with the same Ravel Shéhérazade on the Fink recording, plus a knockout selection of Debussy (Chansons de Bilitis) and especially Poulenc (neither with orchestra). Take a look at the YouTube video below to see Crispin's Poulenc: she should be required listening (and viewing) for any singer studying French diction. That song is track 17. As for other worthy Nuits d'été recordings for Berlioz nuts, Victoria de Los Angeles is also beloved but hard to find, while the two alternatives linked at right above are fine, inexpensive options, too.

Decca 000710802

Régine Crespin, Les gars qui vont à la fête (F. Poulenc),
recorded on 11 January 1964

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