From the visceral rendition of the overture to the life-affirming performance of the finale, Sir Colin Davis' new recording of Benvenuto Cellini with the London Symphony Orchestra is an almost unmitigated pleasure.
Many of the highpoints of Davis' career have involved performances of music by Hector Berlioz, many of whose works, even now, are unjustly neglected; the conductor's return to the French master for the eighth volume in the LSO's Berlioz series on their in-house record label is every bit as rewarding as the previous volumes.
Of the composer's three completed operas – Les troyens and Beatrice et Benedict being the other two – Benvenuto Cellini is perhaps the least familiar. To stage the final scene, in which the sculptor Cellini forges a statue from metal flowing out of the top of a furnance, is a massive challenge for even the richest opera companies. The work also demands a large number of solo singers.
Yet its musical riches are many, including Teresa's aria, the trio and the Shrove Tuesday finale in Act I and the grand finale in Act II. Davis and the LSO use the original Paris sequence with spoken dialogue that satisfies Berlioz's final intention to transform the work into an opèra comique, an idea fully congruous with the score's jolly character if not its nobility.
The cast includes many excellent contributions, of which the greatest is without doubt Laura Claycomb's performance as Teresa, Cellini's beloved. The fearlessness of her delivery of her coloratura lines in her opening aria in particular is admirable, while she easily captures the vivacity of the feisty seventeen-year-old. Initially, Gregory Kunde sounds under strain as Cellini, but he grows in tonal power over the course of the opera and portrays the character's swagger vividly. Peter Coleman-Wright adds elegance as Fieramosca and John Relyea is imposing as the Pope.
Three of Covent Garden's Young Artists give stylish contributions, with Andrew Kennedy making the biggest impact as Francesco and Darren Jeffrey (Balducci) and Jacques Imbrailo (Pompeo) matching the high standards set by the rest of the cast in their important scenes. Andrew Foster-Williams (Bernardino) and Isabelle Cals (Ascanio) complete an excellent line-up.
Yet it's the conductor and orchestra who dominate here. Sir Colin's understanding of Berlioz's maverick personality comes through in as lively a reading of the overture as one could hope for, with the brass and strings especially virtuosic, and the powerful first-act finale – ear-splittingly loud in the live performance which I attended last summer – offers proof that the LSO is still amongst the crème de la crème of the world's orchestras. The balance of textures, observation of the composer's articulation markings and the players' willingness to listen to one another are perhaps the three defining characteristics of what remains a brilliant band.
This new Cellini is essential listening for those who already know and love the work, while newcomers will find it an easy way to join those ranks, especially at so cheap a price.
Also see our review of the live concert performance of Benvenuto Cellini given by the LSO and Colin Davis in June 2007 here.