Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie fantastique Op.14 (1830)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
rec. 9 April 1962, Boston Symphony Hall

This famous recording has been given some cleanup treatment, lifting the colour and presence of an already spectacular recording to an unprecedented degree. Munch takes all sorts of liberties with tempi, yet no-one – Bernstein included – has managed to give this extraordinary musical unity without sacrificing excitement. Given that it represents one of the most frenetic, febrile expressions of hallucinogenic, drug-induced hyper-sensitivity that the Romantic Movement affords, it would seem prosaic in the extreme to demur from Munch’s agogic freedom, especially when he conjures such ravishing sounds from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He gives this pulsating music an entirely absorbing sense of purpose, yet nothing seems calculated; even the most extreme rubato or accelerando serves the underlying architectural conception.

The vividness of the sound also reveals that of accelerating vehicles in the background and every creak of the floor. While the 1954 version made with the same forces on stereo reel-to-reel tape is in some ways even more daring and propulsive, on balance this 1962 stereo re-make – the liner-notes do not give the actual date of 9th April – is marginally preferable both in terms of sound and interpretation, although I would not go to the stake defending either against the other.

The opening of the first movement is weighty, soulful and impassioned before launching into the yearning, headlong passion over Berlioz’s own “Immortal Beloved”. Here, more than anywhere else, Munch plays fast and loose with the beat but it works. In the second movement, “Un bal”, the waltz time is a little more measured than in the 1954 recording but if anything even more charged with erotic intensity. The “Scène au champs” avoids the longueurs which lesser conductors engender, and the exquisite tuning of the Boston strings makes magic as that glorious bucolic theme, so reminiscent of Beethoven’s “Pastoral”, blooms expansively. In contrast to the freedom he employs elsewhere, Munch at first holds the “Marche au supplice”, to a very steady beat, before gradually ratcheting up the tempo and tension and building ominously to a superb decapitation. The “Songe d’une nuit de sabbat” again pulses steadily and inexorably before the chimes usher in the weird, pounding tread of the Dies Irae and the syncopated frenzy of the demonic dance. This is one of the great Berlioz recordings, beyond doubt.

One minor quibble: HDTT have made an odd choice of cover design in using a painting made in 1866 by Fortuny, “Fantasía sobre Fausto”. Apart from the fact that Teldec used the same work far more appropriately for the cover of their 1993 box-set of Gounod’s “Faust”, the association is surely at best tenuous and at worst incongruous. Never mind; this re-mastering is a revelation and gives new life to a classic account.

Ralph Moore

This re-mastering is a revelation and gives new life to a classic account.