BERLIOZ: 6 Overtures (Benvenuto
Cellini; Les Franc-Juges; Le corsaire; BČatrice et Benedict; Waverley; King
These buff, idiomatic, sonically thrilling performances were recorded at C.T.S. Studios in London during 1996. How long they've been available stateside -- as part of an often (though not always) distinguished Royal Philharmonic series -- I cannot say, but only saw them for the first time recently on a budget table at the local Tower Store (yes, we have one in Central Maryland that people drive from Baltimore to patronize). It's the same repertoire, minus the overplayed Roman Carnival, found on RCA/BMG's full price collection from Dresden, recorded in January 1997 by Sir Colin Davis and the Staatskapelle, recommended here when it was newly issued almost two years later.
The Royal Phil isn't a desk-for-desk equal of Dresden's premiere orchestra (that city also has a Philharmonic, but not of the same caliber); few in Europe are. But the RPO has struggled back from hard times to become "Britain's national orchestra," and when the conductor is a stalwart of the late Sir Alexander Gibson's stature, they play full-price performances at less than half the cost of their rivals. Most, in fact, of Sir Alex's tempos are quicker than Sir Colin's -- more than 1 minute, 39 seconds in King Lear, the longest work in either collection, followed by Les Franc-Juges. Both are early works, as the first version of Symphonie fantastique is, but earliest of all is Waverley of 1827, inspired by Sir Walter Scott's novel.
My only disappointment with the RPO collection is the omission of
companion work, the Rob
Roy concert overture,
likewise inspired by Scott -- a 12-minute piece that would have fit on 64-minute
disc. It isn't currently available that I've been able to track down; indeed,
my only copy is a broadcast cassette by slow-gaited Gennady Rozhdestvensky and
the Chicago Symphony from the '80s. Gibson included it in a previous Berlioz
collection on Chandos with the Scottish National Orchestra, which he headed from
1959 to 1984, but that wasn't in the class of this later one, either
interpretively or as playing. If Sir Colin's performances are elegant,
polished, and reflective -- certainly superior to his Berlioz with the London
Symphony in the early '60s for Philips -- Gibson's have a shapely forthrightness
as attractive as Davis' dissimilar strengths.