Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie Fantastique [55:39]
Overture Le Carnaval Romain [9:13]
Anima Eterna Brugge/Jos Van Immerseel
rec. May 2008, Concertgebouw, Bruges

Another Symphonie Fantastique recording, but one which genuinely tries to make a difference, and largely succeeds.

Conductor Jos Van Immerseel and his Bruges-based orchestra take as their starting point Berlioz’s innovations and experiments in instrumentation and orchestration. Even now it is possible to appreciate the shock tactics which Berlioz employed in his weirdly autobiographical symphony. Apart from the five-movement programmatic content, there are the two harps, valve cornets, double timpani, divided double-basses, ophicleides and col legno violins, not to mention the bells - more of that later..

Accordingly, this recording emphasises the unusual sonorities employed in the symphony within a context of ‘authentic’ performance. This leads to a rather straight reading, without many emotional surprises. But with so many personalised recordings on the market, this is not necessarily a bad thing. The main problem is the slowing down of the tempo in key moments. During the first movement (Rêveries/Passions), for example, there is a sudden slackening of speed during the ecstatic central section. The same thing happens during the fourth movement (Marche au Supplice), when the chaotic march to the guillotine threatens to slow to a bit of a plod.

But there are many highlights, too. Listen out for the brisk ball movement (Un Bal), with the tremulous harps rightly placed out in front. Then again, there’s the exquisitely played third movement (Scène aux Champs), which sounds like an extended pastoral symphonic poem. Here, the tempo slow-down helps to expose Berlioz’s layers of orchestration. Make your own mind up about the finale (Songe d’une Nuit du Sabbat). Here, Van Immerseel has opted to omit the bells and replace them with two pianos playing in unison, octaves apart. There is nothing odd about this – in the score Berlioz himself suggests the replacement of bells with two or more pianos if suitable bells are unavailable. There is certainly something ominous about the dead-sounding pianos playing alongside the Dies irae ophicleides. The rest of the movement is a diabolic orgy of sound – scary, but great fun.

As a filler, the recording includes a brilliant performance of the Carnaval Romain overture. Balanced and well-rounded, it serves as a good introduction to themes from Berlioz’s seldom-staged opera Benvenuto Cellini.

John-Pierre Joyce