Gary Bertini (1927-2005) was a Russian-born Israeli conductor who had an important career in Europe, Israel and Japan but who was never much of a figure in American concert halls. I first came across him when I heard a couple of his Mahler recordings and was quite impressed. His set of the complete Mahler symphonies with the Kölner Rundfunk Sinfonie-Orchester (Cologne Radio SO) has been highly regarded by many and is available on 11CDs for less than $6 per disc Mahler: Symphonies 1-10; Das Lied von der Erde [Box Set]. This 3CD set is a collection of live recordings made late in his career - the late 1980s, early 1990s - and previously issued separately.
CD1: Berlioz - ca. 75mins
Benvenuto Cellini Overture
CD2: Ravel - ca. 55mins
Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2
Piano Concerto in G Major, with Martha Argerich, piano
CD3: Debussy - ca. 60mins
Nocturnes, with Cologne Radio Choir
Prélude à l'Aprés-midi d'un Faune
The Berlioz disc is a real humdinger with a sensational Symphonie fantastique. The March to the Scaffold and Witches' Sabbath movements are particularly well-played and -characterized. Don't let anyone tell you that the Cologne Radio Symphony is not a major ensemble. They are magnificent in all departments. Further, Bertini has them sounding like a French orchestra, but one that can play in tune. The contrasting moods of Roman Carnival are finely delineated, with its bumptious beginning followed by the introspective theme played marvelously by the winds. The Benvenuto Cellini overture reminds one of what glories there are in the opera proper. Why doesn't it get performed more often?
I'm a little less pleased with the Ravel disc. The Daphnis et Chloé suite is, however, very evocative with washes of instrumental color. The only letdown is the somewhat slower-than-desired final section, the Danse générale, which is, nonetheless extraordinarily precisely done. The Piano Concerto features Martha Argerich who plays with real sizzle; one knows this is a live performance because there are a few minor bobbles in her playing and one off-kilter horn note. I much prefer her recording with Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic, made about the same time, but this is an exciting performance and the hushed middle movement, always the highlight of any performance, is magical. La Valse is a little rough and ready for my taste, seeming more sarcastic than slyly satirical.
The Debussy disc has a wonderful La Mer with atmosphere galore. One really does get a sense of being at the seaside or on the waves. Bertini has a real ability to delineate the interpenetrating strands of sound, almost as much as Boulez with the Cleveland Orchestra. The three Nocturnes are equally atmospheric (although the choral voices are oddly blended at times). The booklet notes quote Debussy's commentary on 'Nocturnes', which I'd somehow never seen before, and they are evocative. I quote: "'Nuages': that is the view of a uniform sky through which clouds slowly and melancholically make their path, dying in the grayness dotted with soft white nuances. 'Fętes': that is the dancing movement, the dancing rhythm of the atmostphere, abruptly illuminated by bright lightning; and it is on the other hand the episode of a parade - a slightly unreal vision as if from a fairy tale, - a parade that approaches the festival and is swallowed up in it...'Sirènes': they are the sea and its movement in innumerable rhythms; then the mysterious song of the sirens is heard across the waves reflecting the moonlight, a bright string of laughter fading away." The comes the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun which is given a fairly conventional reading featuring really fine playing from the woodwinds.
This is a hybrid SACD and features viscerally luscious sound, both in SACD and plain stereo. Nowhere are the producers or engineers named, but they deserve mention.
Three CDs with fine playing except for some minor issues and a wonderful price. The box set simply collects the individual CDs originally issued and comes with complete sets of notes.