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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Le Corsaire Overture Op.21 [8:06]
Symphonie Fantastique Op.14 [55:32]
Symphonie Fantastique: Un Bal - alternative version with cornet obbligato [6:43]
Orchestre National de Lyon/Leonard Slatkin
rec. Auditorium de Lyon, France, 31 August-1 September 2011.
NAXOS 8.572886 [70:21]

Experience Classicsonline

Leonard Slatkin is the newly appointed Music Director of the Orchestre National de Lyon, beginning his tenure with the 2011-12 season. If this new Berlioz coupling is representative of what the orchestra will be delivering in the future then we can look forward to some fabulous releases. I also hope that Naxos has signed up engineer Tim Handley to produce and engineer any new CDs from this partnership. 

The opening of Le Corsaire can often sound hectic and scrappy. Not so here. The strings and chirping woodwinds are spot-on with their clear articulation. It’s a stunning start and the good news is that the sound quality is magnificent. Strings are natural, winds are suave but not over bright and the brass sonorities are thrilling. The illusion of sitting in the stalls of an auditorium with a splendidly warm acoustic is tangible. Slatkin delivers a controlled, sophisticated, performance without any sense of being rushed. It culminates in an exciting blaze of brass. The recording quality is reminiscent of those Philips/Colin Davis offerings of the 1970s. There is a glow given to the orchestra but this doesn’t mean that the image is in any way opaque. There is some outstandingly fine inner detail to be heard. Everything is there and the playing is of the highest order.
Moving on to the symphony I’d like to make a quick footballing analogy. Good referees aren’t noticed by the crowd. They allow the game to flow without undue interference with the players on the pitch. In this recording, Slatkin seems to allow the players to go about their business without any undue interpretative intrusions. He coaxes some great playing out of the orchestra as individual soloists and also collectively. He’s in control - of course he is - but he’s just the catalyst and he serves the music admirably. This is a really affectionate, elegant version that utilises all the powers of a modern symphony orchestra in full flight. It’s not especially devilish or neurotic but as far as highly polished realisations of the score go this is up there at the top of the list.
The first movement opens gently but then sets off dramatically in the ensuing allegro. The repeat is taken, giving the structure the right balance. The symphony is fantastic and so is the recording. The clarity of detail is truly astonishing. I have no idea how the microphones were set up but quite frankly that doesn’t matter. This sounds uncannily like a live orchestra. The opening of Un bal is a delight with the harps placed left and right. The effect is exhilarating. One minor quibble relates to the very end of the movement which sounds a bit strange - there’s a peculiar overhang to the final chord, as if some of the instruments hadn’t been dampened quickly enough (harps, maybe?). The Scène aux champs is delivered as a true adagio with the cor anglais and oboe calls set back most realistically. The string playing is flexible and the timbre is deep and sonorous. The timpani rolls near the end sound just as they should - distant thunder threatening the pastoral scene. The Marche au supplice is, thank goodness, a march and not a trot. Those French bassoons have a field day and the trombones produce a superb rasp in the lower register. The repeat is also taken. A word or two is in order here about the percussion section which is most realistically caught. The timpani and bass drum cut through superbly without disrupting proceedings and those delicate cymbal strokes sound totally natural. So, we go onwards to the final Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath. This has some magical touches to it in the quieter, more sinister passages. The Dies Irae with its tolling bells is pretty disturbing and the growling lower strings add to the effect. There’s always something of a debate about the bells used in this movement. Here we have tubular bells. That’s no problem for me but if this is an issue and it puts some people off then it’s a great shame. Everything else is immaculate. Slatkin really goes for it towards the end with an overpowering bass drum and full throated brass bringing the work to a fittingly brilliant and satisfying conclusion.
By way of a bonus there is a second version of Un bal included with a cornet obbligato. This is a novelty item and the cornet part is expertly despatched but maybe it could have been replaced by a second overture instead. However, anyone buying this CD will be buying it for the Symphonie Fantastique. This is a natural, sophisticated, glowing performance captured in the finest sound I’ve ever heard given to the work. It’s one of the best versions now available and at bargain price it must not be overlooked. I struggle to think of a version that offers better playing. An absolute winner.
John Whitmore

see also review by Paul Corfield Godfrey

Masterwork Index: Symphonie fantastique

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