Hector BERLIOZ (1803 – 1869)
Symphonie fantastique, op.73 (1830) [51:45]
L’orchestre national/André Vandernoot
rec. 1961. ADD
The booklet and disk tell us that Vandernoot is conducting “L’orchestre national”. As the horn sound, at one point, is distinctly French I assume this to be the L’orchestre national de France*. Whoever the ensemble is, it can certainly play and this is a very fine interpretation and performance of this, perhaps, too familiar work. However, it certainly wasn’t over-familiar in 1961 when this recording was made, when there would have been a mere handful of recordings available. Today, one is overwhelmed with about 100 different recordings!
This is a very welcome re–issue. The performance is bright and alert. There is no unnecessary lingering over small points in the music, nothing unduly sensational, and certainly nothing is sentimentalised. The first movement starts with a well paced slow introduction. It’s here where a rather fulsome and slightly wobbly French horn can be heard – a sound so well remembered from French recordings of that time – but it is only for a moment. When the allegro comes it has a nicely paced forward movement but the music is never hurried, or harried. Vandernoot allows the music to breathe, building a fine, and most satisfying, climax, the relaxation from which is truly magical.
The Valse has a lovely swing to it, but this is no Viennese waltz - it’s French all the way. There’s an occasionally sour oboe note which sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb, but, as with the horn at the beginning, it’s momentary; rather shocking all the same. The slow third movement, set in the fields, is, perhaps, a trifle too romantic in outlook, but there is a fine sense of loneliness and big open spaces within the pages. The opening dialogue between oboe and cor anglais is nicely placed and at the end, when the oboe remains unanswered and the thunder-claps grow nearer, is quite spectacular.
The March to the Scaffold is suitably macabre but it is the Witches’ Sabbath which really raises goose pimples. From the first entry of the bells – not any Cathedral bells these, just simple country Church bells, for the witches walk among us everywhere - the performance simply bristles with menace and is most unsettling.
There is no way that this “Orchestre national” is a great orchestra, the playing isn’t up to the highest standards of the time, but at least the musicians make a really good stab at this piece, and give it a very enjoyable performance. It responds well to Vandernoot’s direction, and, one suspects that the musicians enjoyed themselves; it sounds as if they do. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of this performance and, despite my few reservations, I have absolutely no worries about recommending it. It sizzles in a way that many more recent recordings don’t – the music is simply a joy for the players, who haven’t yet become bored with playing it day in and day out, as is so often the case today.
The sound is clear and bright, with a good balance within the orchestra. There’s a wealth of competition from Boulez to Menuhin, but Vandernoot can more than hold his own against some pretty starry names.

Bob Briggs

* According to the Herman Discography it was the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire

A very welcome re–issue … see Full Review