BERLIOZ: 6 Overtures (Benvenuto Cellini; Les Franc-Juges; Le corsaire; BČatrice et Benedict; Waverley; King Lear)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Sir Alexander Gibson, cond.

Intersound/PED 2884 [DDD] [B] TT: 64:13  

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 Waverley's 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.  

If I've seemed to neglect the music per se, Berlioz's unique and flamboyant genius influenced European orchestral music not only during his beleaguered lifetime (the French made sport of him notoriously) but through Debussy and Ravel, despite the former's mean-spirited disclaimer.  Berlioz was indisputably France's greatest composer of the 19th century, and this collection does him honor at the same time it memorializes Sir Alex. Along with Vernon Handley he was the most neglected British Isles conductor by British critics during his career, perhaps (but who can say?) because he was a Scotsman rather than English.

R.D.