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BARGAIN OF THE MONTH

 

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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 (1830) [46:42]
Roméo et Juliette, Op. 17 (1839) – Part II: Love Scene [13:20].
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
rec. Symphony Hall, Boston, 14-15 November 1954 (Op. 14); 23-24 April 1961 (Op. 17). ADD
RCA LIVING STEREO SACD 82876 67899 2 [60:11]

 

 

A tremendous SACD. These are classic Berlioz readings under the baton of a master. Although the playing time is only a smidgen over an hour, the sheer involvement of the players and the super-clean recording makes this an exhausting listening experience.

Not only is the recording super-clean, it is also rather up-front; as was Living Stereo's way. That said, the way the strings are captured is exquisite, something reflected in their loving phrasing. When the tempo and dynamics increase, ensemble is outstanding, as is the sheer energy the orchestra injects into the score. It is easy to hear the supernatural/magical element that inspired the composer to these heights. 

Some of the string writing here in the first movement is notorious, and it is to the Boston Symphony's credit that they are simply jaw-dropping at these difficult corners; the section excels again in the 'March to the Scaffold'. The really close harp of the second movement may distract, but interestingly the impression left by this 'Ball' is of an underlying tenderness.

Perhaps there is understandable fear to the cor anglais solos of the country scene, but the objection to this movement is that it is just a tad fast to make its full atmospheric effect. Yet as the movement proceeds one is aware of Munch's intensity; this is preferable to Colin Davis in any incarnation. The solo timpani rolls towards the end of the movement are almost unbearably lonely.

Berlioz's pictorialism clearly appealed hugely to Munch; the finale (Witches' Sabbath) is hugely exciting. It is difficult not to wonder if Solti based his interpretations on those of Munch. Certainly, much of the same energy is there, but without Munch's depth and clear affinity with the music.

The filler is a stunning Love Scene from Op. 17. Munch has the Bostonians spin a delicate web of sound in a reading that is at once expansive and tender.

A de luxe issue. The low playing time hardly matters – this is Berliozian gold.

Colin Clarke

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