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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 (1830) [51:11]
Edgard VARÈSE (1883-1965)
Ionisation, for percussion ensemble of 13 players (1929/31) [6:28]
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live 7-8 March 2013 (Berlioz), 1-2 July 2010 (Varèse), Philharmonie, Munich, Germany
BR KLASSIK 900121 [58:44]

This inventive programme on BK Klassik comprises Berlioz’s self portrait and Varèse relinquishing pitched sounds almost entirely. Written just over a century apart the two works by these French-born composers were in their day considered to be at the cutting edge. Today the Berlioz has endured as one of the best-loved works in the repertoire. Conversely the Varèse is rarely heard.
One of the first classical recordings on vinyl I ever bought was the Symphonie fantastique played by the LSO under André Previn. It was on CFP. Subtitled An Episode in the Life of an Artist this is by some distance Berlioz’s most popular score. The epitome of Romantic extravagance, this epic for large orchestra was composed in 1830 and revised in 1831/32 and again before being published in 1845. It was first performed at the Paris Conservatoire in December 1830 conducted by François-Antoine Habeneck.
Passionate about Shakespeare plays Berlioz became infatuated with the actress Harriet Smithson and was fired up to live out his fantasies in this symphony. In the manner of a Gothic novel Berlioz assigns descriptive titles to each of the five movements. These follow a programme of his obsessions including dreams, fits of temper and despair, tender moments of ecstasy and images of murder and execution.
A number of recordings have conductors who take an audaciously near-explosive approach as if to see who can create the most drama. This excess of power isn’t always translated into true drama. It can feel contrived and exaggerated, sometimes sounding ragged and far too loud. Avoiding this practice Jansons seems completely at home with this tour de force. Right from the opening Rêveries - Passions Jansons is judicious with his pacing and focuses mainly on creating vivid orchestral colour. I doubt I have ever heard Un bal - a Valse, played with such stylishness. This should not be taken to mean subdued. An Adagio the Scène aux champs establishes and sustains a sense of restlessness. The onset of distant thunder is conveyed splendidly; impressive sonics too. To fail to mention the elevated quality of the woodwind playing here would be remiss. Initially the famous Marche au supplice feels predominantly stealthy before quickly becoming bolder. Not as rip-roaring as some accounts Jansons provides excitement but not at the expense of orchestral polish. The Finale: Songe d'une nuit de sabbat sounding suitably devilish and Jansons adds a disarming vibrancy.
Edgard Varèse was highly innovative and explored the use of electronic music. Although born in France, Varèse spent the greater part of his composing career in the USA. His magnum opus, the heavily scored Amériques, is probably his best known score. It’s extremely rare to hear his music in concert, yet, I did hear a dazzling performance of Amériques (1918/21 rev. 1927) at the Musikfest Berlin 2012 as part of an American music concert by the Royal Concertgebouw under Mariss Jansons.
Ionisation requires a wide array of around forty or so percussion instruments that include sirens and ‘lion's roar’. These are almost all unpitched until close to the conclusion. This is very much an exercise in textures. The inscrutable yet dramatic interactions of the Bavarian Radio players suggest the sounds of a modern day city.
As I have come to expect from BR Klassik, these live performances are quite excellently recorded. Originally in German the two essays written by Jörg Handstein in their English translations are interesting and instructive. The Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, one of world’s greatest orchestras, never seems to rest on its laurels always looking for improvements and different repertoire to try. Under Jansons these players breathe new life into the Berlioz and do so with a deft touch that never feels weighty or overblown. One senses that the percussion greatly relish the Ionisation test which they pass with flying colours.
Michael Cookson

Masterwork Index: Symphonie fantastique