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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1860)
Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 (1830) [48:20]
Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a (1892) [21:07]*
Cleveland Orchestra/Lorin Maazel
rec. Severance Hall, Cleveland, May 1982; *Masonic Auditorium, Cleveland, April 1981
TELARC SACD60650 [69:27]

Maazel may have a great Fantastique in him, but this isn't it. At first, the slow introduction suggests something special to come. The conductor doesn't overplay the dynamics, holding the music at the indicated piano until the pulse increases a few minutes in; the Cleveland Orchestra maintains the soft playing with a lovely transparent sheen. The tempo is held on a tight rein when the theme returns, but the compulsive, feverish effect of the accompanying flute and clarinet semiquavers is hardly inappropriate for a programme symphony depicting an opium dream.
But  the same carelessness and inattention that has ruined other Maazel recordings - the Cleveland Brahms 2 and the Vienna Sibelius 2 come to mind - sabotage this one. (It's not enough simply to wield a virtuoso stick technique - you have to make sure the orchestra is playing what you're conducting.) The slurry playing of the figurations in the first-movement recapitulation (10:02) undercuts its power. The second movement's waltz theme is runny; there's no real weight in the tone or thrust in the phrasing, no sense of moving towards and away from musical destinations. Maazel uses the cornets, but he might as well not have: recessing them in the balance this way - presumably to avoids the mawkish dance-band effect one occasionally hears - just muddles the textures. Tuttis are all over the place, with important landings simply not together.
The Scène aux champs is easy on the ears, a pleasant if static idyll. The March to the Scaffold features some marvelous brass playing - note how the final chord stays impeccably balanced and tonally refined as it crescendos - but Maazel's forthright one-step sounds incongruously jaunty. The Witches' Sabbath is reasonably alert and well-paced, but I've heard better elsewhere - and why is the brass's last Dies Irae allowed to obliterate the whirling strings and woodwinds?
The Nutcracker Suite, drawn from earlier sessions, bears out the promise unfulfilled in the Berlioz. Maazel's buoyant phrasing brings these overfamiliar dances to life - he shapes them in long lines and doesn't get bogged down in the individual beats. Save for the barely audible low flute in the Miniature Overture, and an iffy trumpet attack at 5:24 of the Waltz of the Flowers, the playing is excellent, with gorgeous brass chording in the March - though here the orchestra's dexterity tempts the conductor into speed for speed's sake.
Still, I'd hardly recommend an SACD just for a twenty-minute filler. For the Berlioz, you might as well wait a little longer for Davis's LSO or Concertgebouw version (both Philips), Solti's analog (Decca), or Karajan's mid-1970s remake (DG) to appear so re-mastered. Or, if you don't mind good old-fashioned frontal stereo, track down Munch's blazing Hungarian Radio account on a Philips CD or, preferably, a Hungaroton LP. Meanwhile, let's hope this Nutcracker reappears in tandem with its original LP discmate - an excellent Romeo and Juliet - or gets recycled into still another program.
Stephen Francis Vasta



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Editorial Board
Classical Editor
Rob Barnett
Seen & Heard
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