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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie Fantastique [55:53]
Overture: Waverley [9:42]
London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. live, October-November 2013, Barbican, London
Disc 1: Hybrid-SACD
Disc 2: Blu-Ray film of concert and Blu-Ray audio (2.0 & 5.1 sound)
LSO LIVE LSO0757 [65:35]

When I read in the promotional material for this disc that this is the first in a new Berlioz series that the LSO were doing with Gergiev, my first thought was that they are very brave. After all, LSO Live have already set themselves stratospherically high standards with the extensive Colin Davis Berlioz series. Whatever Gergiev’s skills, his Berliozian credentials pale next to the standards of that giant in the repertoire and his interpretation of the Symphonie Fantastique simply didn’t grab me. The opening Reveries section, for example, seems to pass by in a fairly disengaged manner. Where are the longings of the lover in existential angst? Even more seriously, the orgiastic thrashings of the coda come across as formulaic and lacking in intensity. The idée fixe itself flows beautifully but lacks expression and the rest of the final bars doesn’t seem to have been won so much as arrived at.
The waltz of the second movement is very heavy-footed and cumbersome, particularly at its first appearance. True, this allows Gergiev to reinforce the extent of the headlong speed of its coda, but you have to put up with a lot of lumpen weightiness before you get there. He shapes the sense of swelling momentum effectively in the third movement, but I was disappointed by the four-square reading of the last two movements which, I thought, would have suited his temperament much more successfully.
The thing that lifts the disc somewhat is the excellent playing of the LSO, but then wouldn’t you expect that from an orchestra that played it so often and so well under Davis? The strings in the slow movement sound great, and the eerie effects of the finale all come across very well, such as the creepy strings just before the big moment combining the fugue with the Dies Irae, and the funeral bell is captured with admirable clarity. On the whole, though, this Symphonie Fantastique pales away when you compare it to Davis’ recent LSO recording, let alone his Concertgebouw reading, and if you want an entirely different experience then you should run to get Robin Ticciati’s recording with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
The Waverley Overture is perfectly acceptable, but no-one would buy the disc for that, and there certainly isn’t anything about the performance that would set it above, say, Andrew Davis’ recent, excellent Bergen disc of Berlioz overtures.
There is another complicating factor, and it’s to do with the recorded sound. Listening to the stereo CD, the recording level struck me as very low. In fact, when listening through both headphones and regular speakers, I had to turn my volume up much higher than usual to be able to make out much. I wonder if this was anything to do with the fact that the concert was also recorded for Blu-Ray audio and film on the second disc included in this set? If so then that’s another black mark, because I see no reason why that should have compromised the stereo. However, the BD audio sound is actually pretty good, in both 2.0 and 5.1, and there is also a film of the concert which is also a pleasure, as filmed concerts go, with healthy sound and excellent picture. This is a new venture for LSO Live, and it is to be hoped that they will do it again, as it’s a plus for this package.
However, it is also to be hoped that next time they do it more successfully. However good the packaging, presentation and formatting, this remains a disappointingly mediocre Symphonie Fantastique, and no amount of dressing up will help it to compete with the best out there.
Simon Thompson
Masterwork Index: Symphonie Fantastique