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.
see also review by Paul
Masterwork Index: Symphonie