Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie Fantastique, Op.14 with alternative version of second movement [62.15]
Le corsair, Op.21 [8.06]
Orchestre National de Lyon/Leonard Slatkin
rec. Auditorium de Lyon, 31 August-1 September 2011
NAXOS 8.572886 [70.21]
Once upon a time, and not very long ago either, the Symphonie fantastique was still regarded as an orchestral showpiece that remained an extremely difficult ‘play’ over 150 years after its first performance. Nowadays players can take the difficulties of the score in their stride, but there remain a number of pitfalls which can still cause problems to even the most experienced ensembles.
I make no apology for beginning with the matter of the bells in the finale. Berlioz clearly writes these in the bass clef, in the same register as the ophicleide and serpent (or nowadays the two tubas) which declaim the plainchant Dies irae.He makes his intentions even clearer in his suggestion that in the absence of bells the part can be ‘cued in’ on the piano, in the same register. For many years however conductors have substituted tubular bells or similar instruments sounding two octaves or more higher - which simply distorts the relationship between the musical strands and gives the bells an undue prominence. Karajan courted critical brickbats in his 1975 recording with his use of electronically synthesised bell sounds, but at least he appreciated the importance of getting the right sort of sound - although his version is ruled out of consideration by his omission of the repeats in the first and fourth movements, which undermines Berlioz’s carefully calculated proportions. Gardiner uses church bells, but again an octave higher than Berlioz implies. Unfortunately here Slatkin gives us the usual tubular bells a couple of octaves too high (track 6, 3.03).
I say “unfortunately” because otherwise this is quite simply one of the best performances of the Symphonic fantastique on disc. The orchestral playing is always precise, clear, perfectly balanced, and doesn’t stint on a single one of Berlioz’s many orchestral effects. The trombone pedals and the bass drum in the March to the scaffold are right in-your-face as Berlioz clearly intended - and we get all the repeats he wanted. The harps in the Ball scene sparkle and glitter and the notorious wind glissandi at the beginning of the last movement (track 6, 0.41) smear their way across the page as the composer asks. To cap it all we also get two versions of the Ball scene, one as Berlioz originally wrote it and another - which can be programmed in as a substitute - with the virtuoso cornet solo that he added for a concert performance in 1844. The option to play either version is, so far as I aware, unique to this recording.
Indeed - and always apart from those bells - this is even perhaps too perfect a performance. Slatkin does not use period instruments like Norrington or Gardiner, but he never lets the listener forget that this is a score from the first half of the nineteenth century and which was first performed a mere twelve months after Beethoven’s death. In other words this is a very classical performance without much romantic dirt on it. Is this really right for a score whose programme after all is about the nightmare of an opium addict? Should there not be a bit more grit around the edges? This is a matter for personal preference; and it must be admitted that a great many delightful details in the scoring that often get smothered come across here with felicitous effect. Slatkin has just been appointed as principal conductor of the Lyon orchestra, and although in the past French orchestras have not always done their best by Berlioz it is certainly the case that they do here.
The disc opens with a brisk performance of the overture The corsair, which shares many of the same traits as the recording of the symphony: very precise string playing in the difficult opening flourishes, but a certain lack of sheer swagger in the principal brass theme. The recording is clean, natural and enables us to hear everything.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
A very classical performance without much romantic dirt on it. One of the best performances on disc.