Hector BERLIOZ (1803–1869)
Symphonie Fantastique Op. 14 [52:07]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)
Overture Leonore No. 2 Op. 72b [15:02]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen
rec. Royal Festival Hall, London September 2008

If you are thinking of replacing or adding to an existing recording of the Symphonie Fantastique, don’t rush to get this one. Not that there is anything terribly wrong with it. It’s just that it somehow slips you by without making much of an impression.

Things don’t get off to a great start with a very slow largo in the opening movement (tack 1), which limps along rather aimlessly. At one point the rising flute motif sounds like a clumsy practice at scales. Conductor Salonen eventually quickens the pace in the ensuing allegro, but it is a bland reading. There is little sense of Berlioz’s autobiographically-inspired agitation, frustration and mood-swings, despite a heady rush to the coda.

The second movement (track 2), At the ball, is played pleasantly enough, although the shifting web of orchestral textures becomes something of a muddy swirl in this live recording, dampened by the Royal Festival Hall’s sombre acoustics.

There is a better start to the Scène aux Champs (track 3), where the cor anglais and oboe solos are appropriately haunting and spare. This leads on to some finely undulating string playing. But once again, Salonen fails to ratchet up the tension, and the final timpani and cor anglais exchange lacks the necessary menace of the approaching storm.

The March to the Scaffold (track 4) includes some very effective rasping on brass, and violent timpani strokes, which urge the march forward. But then, just as we approach the guillotine, Salonen does it again – inexplicably slowing down the tempo and giving us a swanky take on the clarinet’s idée fixe theme.

The final Witches’ Sabbath (track 5) is probably the best played of all the five movements. But by then disappointment has set in too deeply for it to make much difference, and the rousing applause from the London audience sounds undeserved.

As a filler, the recording includes a very competent performance of Beethoven’s second Leonore overture. Although Berlioz probably only heard this work many years after finishing the Symphonie Fantastique, Beethoven’s symphonies had already made a deep impression on the young composer, and so the overture makes a good companion piece. Salonen gives it the full revolutionary operatic treatment (another strong influence on Berlioz), complete with off-stage trumpet calls. The orchestral textures are opened up, and Beethoven’s thematic variations fully explored.

John-Pierre Joyce

Disappointment has set in deeply… see Full Review