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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie fantastique Op.14 (1830) [52:53]*
Le Carnaval Romain Op.9 (1844) [9:45]*
Overture from Benvenuto Cellini Op.23 (1834-8) [10:36]*
Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester/Gary Bertini
rec. Köln Philharmonie, 4-8 May 1993, 24-25 March 1994*. DDD
CAPRICCIO 71094 [73:14]

Capriccio launched its Gary Bertini Edition in 2006, a year after his death in Tel Aviv at the age of 77.  Of the six discs released so far, three feature the music of Mozart, one disc focuses on each of Ravel and Debussy, and this disc offers an all-Berlioz programme.  All are SACD hybrids and all of the performances come from the archives of the Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester.  This is the second disc I have reviewed of the first tranche of releases, and both have been of such high quality that I am impatient for Capriccio to issue more.
There are two main interpretative approaches to Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique: the one symphonic, and the other fantastic.  Conductors who opt for the former approach include Dutoit, Paavo Järvi and Klemperer, whose bizarre reading Germanifies this quintessentially French score.  In the opposite camp are Bernstein, Munch and Tilson Thomas.  Somewhere in between you will find Sir Colin Davis.
Bertini’s approach tends towards the symphonic.  His performance is not without excitement, but the excitement does not ever really burst into exhilaration.  The hallmarks of this performance are beauty and long-breathed phrases.  The strings glow and shimmer throughout, and the woodwinds splash colour.  Bertini also has that Karajan-esque knack of drawing sudden fortes from brass and woodwind without a noticeable attack.  It all feels a little too well behaved, but that is a criticism I would also apply to Dutoit and Järvi.
The first movement is beautifully shaped, and I love the way Bertini brings out the dark chiding of the lower strings that caution the dazed hero as he trips about dreamily after the idée fixe
The waltz movement has bright strings, gleaming harps and more than a little swagger, rather than subtle charm or dreaminess.  The pacing is just right, but comparison with Davis (his LSO Live recording), for example, finds Bertini a touch wanting in flexibility and grace.  That is not to say that Bertini is necessarily inferior.  He prefers a more robust approach, introducing little hesitations and managing dynamics acutely to keep the ear interested.  The Cologne strings really make this movement sing, but some will miss the optional cornet, which Bertini does not employ.
Bertini does not get stuck in the mud of the third movement’s rustic byways, shaving a minute and a half off Dutoit’s reading on Decca, Järvi’s on Telarc and Davis’s on LSO Live.  Munch’s 1954 account is a couple of minutes quicker still.  The immaculate playing of the Cologne strings and woodwind are a joy.
The March to the Scaffold has plenty of energy and excitement, moving at a good clip.  Here Bertini scores heavily over Davis’s exaggerated account of this movement in his recent LSO Live recording.  Phrasing is clipped and the big tuba notes that underpin the second subject come through loud and clear, with plenty of menace.  The playing is immaculate and the balance fine.  The brass interjections could afford to shock more, though.
Similar comments apply to the final Witches Sabbath.  There is a little untidiness in the explosion that interrupts the understated introduction at 1:45.  The woodwinds distinguish themselves yet again in this movement.  The bells are nice, but carry no terror.  Nor do the brass, even when intoning the Dies Irae.
Overall this is a carefully prepared and beautifully played account of Berlioz’s first symphony.  So what is missing?  For me, there is not enough fantasy.  I crave the sheer mania and delirium of Munch and Bernstein.  Sonically, though, Bertini is much better served than either of them in any of their various recordings.  His orchestra, too, is a match for any of theirs.  Though not a first choice, Bertini’s account is worth seeking out if you want to hear the beauty in this score or are looking for an alternative to put beside the more frenetic accounts of this symphony in your collection.  Bertini's Symphonie fantastique is one of the better recordings of its kind - the measured, symphonic kind, that is.
The two overtures are welcome fillers.  Le Carnaval Romain gets a sensitive performance, with the gentle bucolic theme that follows the opening burst of orchestral frenzy given a lovely turn.  The whole works well, but does not match the excitement of Previn or Munch, who both shave about 1:40 off Bertini’s time.  The impact of the Cologne orchestra brass’s final chord, though, is impressive.  The overture to Benvenuto Cellini also receives a carefully crafted performance, though one lacking something in excitement, especially when I compared it to Previn’s 1970s romp with the LSO.
The orchestral playing, as may be gleaned from the above, is of a high standard.  The brass are confident and project a big, dark sound.  The woodwind have character and the strings have a bright sheen.  Those with an eye for dates will notice that these performances were taped around the time that the orchestra - under its new name of the WDR Sinfonieorchestra Köln - was beginning its award-winning Shostakovich symphony cycle with Rudolph Barshai (see reviews 1, 2 and 3).  The orchestra’s continuing excellence is confirmed by a series of acclaimed recordings on Avie under its current chief, Semyon Bychkov (see, for example, reviews 1 and 2).
Though I listened to this disc in conventional stereo, the sound is fabulous – clear as a bell and perfectly balanced with a realistic dynamic range.  The liner notes offer a short biography of Bertini, a short biography of Berlioz and a brief description of the Symphonie fantastique.  No mention of the overtures though!
Tim Perry


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