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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie Fantastique, op. 14 (1830)
Les Francs-juges overture
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti
Date and location of recording not specified, first issued 1972/1974.
DECCA ELOQUENCE (AUSTRALIA) 460 504-2 [65.12]


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When Sir Georg Solti and Mother Theresa died at almost the same moment in August 1997, their deaths were almost totally overshadowed by the car accident in Paris that claimed the life of the Princess of Wales and two other people in the car with her. Soltiís obituaries duly appeared, but the newspapers were so taken up by the other event that the loss of one of the centuryís leading conductors seemed largely to go by the board. When other articles did start to appear I remember being struck by the critical tone of many of them, almost as if the music press had been waiting for Solti to die so that they could say what they liked about him. Solti was a pioneer of the gramophone, a prolific recording artist, and, of course, at the head of the famous Decca Ring, one of the most celebrated projects of all time. Yet many commentators took the opportunity of his death to list his shortcomings, often at the expense of his manifest qualities. The nervous energy present in most of his work was cited as a weakness; his interpretations suffered from a certain driven quality, a lack of grace, even of finesse and subtlety. Well, maybe. But listen to that Ring and see if you agree. Or the Mahler symphonies, or anything by Bartók. Listen to Solti in Elgar. With these composers, as with many others, Sir Georg demonstrated what he was capable of. Not, I rather fear, in Berlioz.

This recording, first issued in 1972, is brilliantly played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but sadly the reasons for buying it end there. Even the recorded sound is too much of a good thing, brightly lit to the point of harshness. As for the interpretation, well, there is little passion or yearning in the slow introduction to the first movement, still less wistfulness or regret where we might hope to hear it. And once the main body of the movement is underway the real character of the interpretation begins to come out even more clearly. The music is exceptionally hard-driven, with precious little charm or grace. Accents are exaggerated, and no opportunity to place accents is missed. Dynamic contrasts are underlined, usually at the expense of the gentler passages. I donít think Iíve ever heard the second movement waltz with less lilt, less dancing quality to it, though characteristically perhaps, the final dash at the end of the movement is well managed. The Scène aux Champs is so totally lacking in atmosphere that you wonder how the players achieved it. We may expect the final two movements to be more successful in that fewer of those qualities of which the conductor seems short on this occasion are required. And so it is, even if the Marche au supplice seems rushed, lacking just the fatal relentlessness that other conductors have been able to bring to it, and the final witches Sabbath has precious little diabolic quality to it. The moment when the strings play with the wood of the bow Ė one of the most hair-raising pieces of orchestration ever, in my view Ė passes for almost nothing.

Les Francs-juges goes a little better, though the same qualities, those present and those lacking, are to be noted, and in any case, even at this price, nobody is going to buy this issue for the overture.

There are so many outstanding versions of this symphony, even at bargain price, that this disc, one of the few disappointments in the excellent Eloquence collection, need not detain us. Try to find Martinon with the French National Radio Orchestra on EMI for an authentic French accent, but otherwise any one of Sir Colin Davisís three recordings (two on Philips, the most recent on LSO Live) demonstrates infinitely better how subversive and inspired, how varied and sheerly beautiful a work the Symphonie Fantastique really is.

William Hedley


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