RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 (1830) [54:58]
Overture: Béatrice et Bénédict (1862) [8:14]
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Robin Ticciati
rec. 7-10 October 2011, Usher Hall, Edinburgh, UK. Stereo and multi-channel
LINN CKD 400 [63:12]
Eyebrows were raised when it was announced that Robin Ticciati would open the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s 2011-12 season with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Berlioz wrote it for a much bigger size of orchestra than the SCO, after all, and unsurprisingly they had never played it before. However, Ticciati is a great fan of Berlioz’s music and, as it turns out, a great interpreter of it too. I was a little underwhelmed by the concert itself, but the orchestra took the music into the studio the following week and the CD that has ensued is thrilling from start to finish.
Playing the Symphonie Fantastique with an orchestra of this size forces new revelations on the ear. There are predictable gains in clarity as inner textures are opened out and laid bare, but Ticciati’s other interpretative decisions are every bit as interesting as the size of his orchestra. The strings, for instance, play without vibrato but on modern instruments. This can lend a slightly pale quality to the sound, but it is applied selectively. When it is, however, it is used to outstanding effect, for example when it accentuates the sense of longing in Reveries section: those sforzando-like cries in the introduction sound like stab wounds. Clearly we are hearing the tale of an artist who suffers at the very extremes of his artistic and emotional being. The size of the orchestra combined with this playing style brings fantastic clarity: the way the horns ring out against the strings at the end of the 1st movement introduction is remarkable, something I noticed in a way I never had before; then the two ff chords that launch the idée fixe ring out like clarion calls to thrilling effect. In fact, the willingness to embrace the extremes of dynamic is a characteristic of this reading - and of the excellent recording. Ticciati is unafraid to embrace the very loud and the very soft and to place them in stark juxtaposition when required. After all, isn’t this one of the most extreme symphonies ever composed, by whatever standard? For all their period style, the strings are still unafraid to embrace the red-blooded Romanticism of the piece: listen to the relish with which the cellos and basses plunge through the slur Berlioz gives them at 11:33 in the first movement before the final, most frenzied statement of the idée fixe, which then sounds properly demented, almost as though it’s straining at the very boundaries of what we expect an orchestra can do - and wouldn’t Berlioz be pleased with that?
Elsewhere Ticciati continually brings out new things. The waltz has a bit of an edge to it, the violins playing with some ever-so-slightly raw attack, coming at the music as though from an angle: this is no comfortable society ball but a psychological trauma with a respectable veneer. The Linn sound is wonderful at the start of Scène aux Champs, the oboe and cor anglais placed at just the right distance while the strings tremble on the edge of audibility. When the violins take over, the sound they make is lovely with, again, a slight edge being lent by the sound of the flute. There is a knockout clarinet solo around the 9-minute mark, pouring balm onto the distress unleashed by the previous climax. There is also a hard edge to the Marche au supplice, tempered by exciting details such as the pizzicato string triplet - seldom audible in other recordings - in bar 15. The violins have an emaciated sound as they first enter with the descending theme, and we are treated to the cheekiest bassoon solo you’ll hear on disc all year. The brass section really leans into the march rhythm and at the climactic brass statement of the main theme you can hear every thrilling note of the way the violins swirl chaotically around the trumpets. Percussion is captured in a way that adds colour as well as excitement and, importantly, the brass are not afraid to make an ugly sound for the final braying.
The finest playing of the disc is reserved for a thrilling account of Berlioz’s dazzlingly original finale. The cackle of the woodwinds is hair-raising at the demonic statement of the idée fixe theme, the placing of the funeral bells in the stereoscape is just right, and the orchestral colour is thrillingly varied for the statements of the Dies Irae theme, complete with genuine ophicleides. Ticciati’s skill as a craftsman is most obviously apparent here too, generating a sense of tension and rising expectation for the start of the fugue theme and building to a vivid sense of catharsis when the fugue combines with the Dies Irae. The tidal wave unleashed by the drums in the final bars will pin you to your seat, as will the brash horror of the shrieking winds as the symphony finally hurtles over the cliff edge.
Then, as if to confound all our expectations, the orchestra give us as spry an account of the Beatrice overture as you could expect to hear anywhere. It’s gentle, agile, flexible and transparent, and manages to sound about as different from the Symphonie Fantastique as it is possible to get.
For me Ticciati’s vision and the playing of his orchestra succeed on every front. Immerseel and Gardiner play on period instruments but they both take their eye off the ball in the finale. Ticciati combines modern instruments with period style and brings out the best of both worlds. This is a version that will blow off the cobwebs for someone who knows the work already and wants to explore something different to the traditional symphony orchestra approach. In my view, however, this may even be a first choice for the work altogether. It came as a revelation to me and it’s this disc I’ll be coming back to when I want to hear the work again and be reminded of just how ground-breaking it still sounds nearly 200 years later. David Cairns’ scholarly liner-notes are excellent, into the bargain.
It’s this disc I’ll be coming back to when I want to be reminded of just how ground-breaking it still sounds.