This DVD is part of a laudable outreach and education initiative from the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, taking a number of works and introducing them with an exploratory DVD documentary. What you get here is an hour-long documentary about Berlioz and the context of the music followed by an uninterrupted performance of the work itself. Other volumes in the series include Ives’ Holidays Symphony and Shostakovich’s Fifth. For full details go to www.keepingscore.org
In the diverting documentary Tilson Thomas acts as our affable guide to the symphony’s background taking us to the Institut de France where Berlioz won the Prix de Rome, the hall of the Paris Conservatoire where the piece was premiered and Berlioz’s childhood home, among other places. His style is quite teacherly and friendly and he makes no attempt at academic scholarliness, but this is clearly a conscious decision and he does his best to appeal to an audience of absolute beginners. His chats are useful and at times reveal the odd surprise, such as the boyhood song which Berlioz re-orchestrates as the Symphonie’s opening. The reconstructions are undeniably cheesy in places, especially the sections about Harriet Smithson, but the locations give the viewer a good grounding in Berlioz’s world. There is very little analysis of how the music works – his style is more descriptive with some signposts to listen out for. Consequently it wouldn’t make a bad present for someone who is getting to know Berlioz for the first time.
The performance itself is very fine with a wonderful glow to the San Francisco strings in particular. There is excellent colour in the finale and it all comes up well in good Dolby 5.1 sound, though no DTS. It’s filmed very intelligently too, something dealt with in an interesting extra documentary. It won’t supplant my CD versions by Colin Davis or, more recently, Jos van Immerseel
, but as an educational venture it deserves to do well.Simon Thompson
As an educational venture it deserves to do well… see Full Review