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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie Fantastique Op. 14 (1830) [55:22]
La Mort de Cléopâtre (1829) [20:28]
Susan Graham (mezzo - Cleopatra)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. 30 May – 1 June 2008, Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin Dahlem
French text and English & German translations included
EMI CLASSICS 2162240 [75:59]
Experience Classicsonline

To the best of my knowledge the music of Berlioz has not previously been a significant feature of Sir Simon Rattle’s programmes, still less of his discography. In some ways that surprises me because the invention of Berlioz and his often-revolutionary orchestration would seem to be tailor-made for Rattle. His talent for controlling large and diverse ensembles would also seem to equip him well for Berlioz and whilst not every work by this highly individual French master might appeal to him I would have thought that, say, La Damnation de Faust or Roméo et Juliette would have been right up his street as well as Symphonie Fantastique. Perhaps this recording heralds a new enthusiasm on his part.   
 
I came to this recording on the back of reviewing the cycle of Bruckner symphonies that Herbert von Karajan set down with the BPO in the 1970s and 1980s. Of course, the sound worlds of Bruckner and Berlioz are poles apart but in their different ways these recordings suggest powerfully to me that there’s been no reduction in standards as between Karajan’s BPO and its current manifestation under Rattle, though the sound is leaner nowadays I fancy.
 
The first three movements of the symphony are well done. Rattle’s keen ear for detail and athletic, pointed playing from the BPO ensures that all the subtle nuances of Berlioz’s imaginative scoring come out. The main allegro of the first movement surges along urgently and the ebb and flow of the music is well handled. Just occasionally, however, I did wonder if details were being slightly over-emphasised. A case in point occurs at 11:27 in this movement where first the viola line and then the cello and bass continuation registers more prominently than I can recall hearing in any other performance.
 
The waltz is light on its feet. The music has charm and grace but energy also. At 2:08 the main theme is heard in the high woodwinds and at this point Rattle brings out the accompanying string parts beautifully. The BPO must have played this work countless times but their playing sounds marvellously fresh both here and elsewhere. Sir Colin Davis, in his celebrated Concertgebouw recording (Philips), also makes this movement sparkle. He includes the optional cornet part that Berlioz added subsequently. I’m not entirely sure if Rattle includes this part – many conductors don’t. I think he may do but if he does it’s much more integrated into the orchestral texture than is the case with Davis, who makes quite a bold feature of the cornet line.
 
The Scène aux champs begins with some wonderful woodwind playing. The whole movement is beautifully controlled by Rattle and his players respond with finesse. Berlioz’s often spare but always hugely imaginative orchestral textures are given full value.
 
So far so good but it’s in the last two movements that doubts begin to creep in. Rattle begins the Marche au supplice at a steady, ominous tread, which I applaud. When the march tune is stated by the trumpet section it sounds comparatively restrained and at first I thought that Rattle was concerned not to peak too soon. But it’s little different second time round – like Davis he takes the repeat – and I began to feel that the reading was on too tight a rein and too controlled. At the very end the dramatic brass chords sound almost subdued. I acknowledge that they’re marked f in the score, not ff, but even so the proper effect is not achieved. Turn to Davis and you’re in a different world (for comparisons I deliberately chose only recordings made, like Rattle’s, under studio conditions.) Davis leads a performance with altogether more bite – the dotted rhythms in the aforementioned trumpet tune are much crisper – and without any crudeness or histrionics he conveys the drama of the piece, making Rattle sound tame and cool by comparison. Charles Munch in his 1962 Boston recording, which eschews repeats, packs even more punch, though part of this may be due to a much closer recording. He starts with a tempo that is appreciably slower than either Rattle or Davis but then, as was his wont, he speeds up significantly later on, in the heat of the moment. Either of these approaches – and Davis’s in particular, is preferable to Rattle’s. After all, Berlioz was writing in a country where the guillotine still plied its trade and where the Revolutionary tumbrils had only ceased to roll some three decades earlier.
 
If the fourth movement is a vivid affair the final Songe d’une nuit du Sabbat is more Gothic still but once again I think that Rattle slightly short changes the listener. The orchestral colouring is years ahead of its time and Rattle brings out much of this. His reading is excellent in many ways, generating much atmosphere and, of course, it’s superbly played. I like the way the tolling bell is nicely in scale – it’s a telling presence but isn’t over prominent. But for all the felicities of the performance I don’t feel Rattle lets rip. I miss the sense of controlled abandon that Davis brings to the music. Berlioz was portraying a nightmare vision here and in the last analysis I don’t really get that from Rattle. One doesn’t want vulgarity, of course, but Davis proves that it’s possible to deliver all the devilish drama without going over the top.
 
So my verdict on this new Rattle performance is that it’s a near miss. It has a lot going for it, especially in the first three movements, but when set beside the work of an acknowledged master Berlioz interpreter, such as Sir Colin, it’s not yet the full deal. However, there’s enough in this performance to suggest that Rattle should continue to explore Berlioz and that he could well become a very fine exponent of the music of this wayward genius.
 
That’s confirmed by the superb, dramatic accompaniment that Rattle provides for Susan Graham in La Mort de Cléopâtre. This was the piece Berlioz submitted in one of his unsuccessful attempts to win the coveted Prix de Rome. The competition rules were very strict and the judges were not the most broadminded and Berlioz’s efforts regularly scandalised them. I’ve heard a few previous performances of this particular work, notably the very fine and characteristically committed one by Dame Janet Baker and Sir Colin Davis, but this present one strikes me as being as good as any I’ve heard.
 
Miss Graham has a wonderful voice, which is equally fine whether she’s singing with velvet smoothness or biting drama. Furthermore she has a striking affinity with the French language. And, of course, she’s no stranger to Berlioz since her previous credits have included the role of Didon in Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s DVD of Les Troyens (BBC Opus Arts OA 0900 D). So she’s very well equipped for this assignment, which is an impassioned lyric scena.  As well as suiting her lyrical and histrionic gifts La Mort de Cléopâtre enables her to demonstrate the range of her voice. She produces some gloriously rich low notes and, when required, her top register is thrillingly deployed, as for example at “m’élançai triomphante aux rives de Cydnus!” (track 6, 8:20).
 
In the second part of the work, “Grands Pharaons”, Miss Graham invests her line with tragic, regal dignity. This whole section is amazingly unconventional and hearing it performed like this, with vividly characterised accompaniment from Rattle and the BPO, one can readily understand why the Prix de Rome judges were affronted – the music must have sounded incomprehensible to them. The closing pages (track 7, from 7:24) are extraordinary and so is Miss Graham’s singing. Listen, for example, to the passage beginning “Dieux du Nil” and to the way she enunciates and colours words such as “trahie”. After Cleopatra’s life has ebbed away we are left with strange, spare and fragmented music for the strings. These doom-laden bars are graphically delivered by Rattle and his players to conclude a rather extraordinary musical experience.
 
The sound provided by EMI is very good. Up to now most, if not all of Rattle’s recordings in Berlin have been made in the Philharmonie and, in most cases have been caught in live concerts. I wonder if the recent fire in the Philharmonie has occasioned the move to the Jesus Christus Kirche, an old stomping ground for BPO recordings? If so, though I’ve never had much of a problem with the sound obtained by EMI engineers in the Philharmonie, I welcome the move since the extra resonance of the church is pleasing, though it’s by no means excessive. I have one small complaint. The typeface used for the text of La Mort de Cléopâtre is smaller than that used for the notes and I find it almost illegible. Why the change?
 
I have reservations about aspects of the performance of Symphonie Fantastique but other collectors may not share these and certainly there’s a welcome freshness about Rattle’s approach to this remarkable work. And in any event the disc is well worth acquiring to experience the extraordinary singing of Susan Graham. Despite my reservations I hope we’ll get more Berlioz from Sir Simon.
 
John Quinn
 
see Masterwork review index for Symphonie Fantastique


 


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