Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Overture: Carnaval Romain, Op 9 [8:55]
Overture: Benvenuto Cellini** [10:34]
Hungarian (Rákóczy) March - (The Damnation of Faust, Op. 24)* [6:03]
Symphonie Fantastique, Op 14 [53:17]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras/**Sir Alexander Gibson/*Yuri Simonov
rec. January 1994; *June 1994; **January 1995, CTS Studio, London. DDD
ALTO ALC 1064 [78:53]
The death of Sir Charles Mackerras on 14 July 2010 has been widely mourned in the musical world, and rightly so. This is not the place to reprise the career of a man described in the obituary in The Daily Telegraph as “one of the great polymath conductors of the 20th century”; that appraisal has been done very well for MusicWeb International in the obituaries by Bill Kenny, Brian Reinhart and Alberto Remedios.
In a recording career that spanned some six decades Mackerras made many notable recordings. He enjoyed a particularly rich Indian summer on disc, not least in his superb Beethoven symphony cycle for Hyperion (review). Then came his life-enhancing set of the last Mozart Symphonies for Linn (review) and previously on Telarc, which was followed only recently by an equally fine collection of five more Mozart symphonies (review). Just in the last few weeks the latest of his discs to be issued, a set of the Dvořák symphonic poems for Supraphon was enthusiastically reviewed here by Brian Reinhart. I have that disc on order and am impatient to hear it.
I don’t know what unreleased Mackerras recordings there may be “in the can” - we can but hope for a few more. In the meantime, Alto have gone back to the mid-1990s to bring us this Berlioz collection, most of which is conducted by Sir Charles.
Mackerras was renowned as an operatic conductor and so it’s quite appropriate to find him conducting Berlioz’s highly theatrical symphony. He gives a very good reading of the piece. There’s plenty of dramatic cut and thrust in the first movement. Mackerras is alive to the ebb and flow of Berlioz’s imagination and obtains lively and colourful playing from the RPO. 
His account of the waltz is excellent. The romantic sweep is all there and Mackerras observes all the little hesitations that give the music its charm. He drives the concluding pages excitingly. The ‘Scène aux Champs’ is also a success. Mackerras quite clearly has the measure of this music, which is not easy to bring off, and he conveys the atmosphere of the movement convincingly. The last two movements are splendidly dramatic - with an impressive tolling bell, which is in just the right proportion. There are many fine versions of Symphonie Fantastique in the catalogue but I don’t think anyone buying this one is likely to be disappointed.
I greatly enjoyed Mackerras’ account of Carnaval Romain as well. The lovely cor anglais melody, and all that flows from it, is affectionately shaped while the lively dancing music is vibrantly articulated. Sir Alexander Gibson’s performance of the Benvenuto Cellini overture makes an apt companion and the reading is a good one. I’m less keen on Simonov’s Hungarian March. The pacing is too deliberate, ponderous even, and I’ve heard it done with a lighter touch and more swagger by a host of other conductors. However, the fact that this performance is a bit below par need not detract from the attractions of an otherwise recommendable Berlioz collection.
The notes, though basic are serviceable and the recorded sound is good throughout the programme
John Quinn  

A recommendable Berlioz collection, featuring a conductor who will be greatly missed.