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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14
Philharmonia Zurich/Fabio Luisi
rec. live, 2013, Opernhaus, Zurich

Philharmonia Zurich is the orchestra of Zurich Opera where Fabio Luisi has been General Music Director since 2012. The orchestra also gives symphony concerts and this live account of Symphonie fantastique, issued under their own imprint, is an example of their concert work.

On the evidence of this disc the Philharmonia Zurich is a very good orchestra. The collective sound is cultivated. The string section is polished; the woodwind choir is nicely blended and also displays no little agility. The brass section makes a good, rounded sound and produces ample weight of tone when required.

Fabio Luisi moulds the Largo introduction to the first movement with care. Once he reaches the Allegro agitato e appassionato assai the music is impelled forward very well though I’ve heard it sound wilder and more impulsive in other hands. Un bal is nicely animated: here the performance is light on its feet and graceful. I liked what I heard.

The central slow movement is well done. There are some moments of appropriate urgency to punctuate the lyric scene. The orchestra plays with refinement and Luisi shapes the music well. He takes the Marche au supplice at quite a brisk pace – the music swaggers. That’s a valid way to play it but I miss a sense of menace. Personally I like to hear the march taken a fraction more steadily; here there’s no sense of implacable fate. Arguably the orchestra’s playing is a bit too civilised. The finale is good up to a point - and I like the distanced bell – but I miss the wildness and sheer originality of the music. This is a radical movement in a radical symphony but I don’t get that sense from Luisi and his accomplished players. This is a performance by an orchestra and conductor who are well versed in opera yet there’s no real sense of theatricality about it, which is a surprise.

You may have gathered from my comments above that this is a perfectly acceptable reading of the symphony but it all feels a bit safe. There are so many fine versions of this highly original symphony in the catalogue but this Zurich performance does not stand out from the crowd in any way. Any of the recordings by Sir Colin Davis are more searching than this one. Charles Munch brings out the wild side (review) while Robin Ticciati makes us listen to the work with fresh ears (review). Alongside these versions Luisi seems too civilised. His is a perfectly decent reading but it’s a safe option. There’s so much more to be found in this score.

The recorded sound is good and the booklet essay is serviceable. The playing time seems rather ungenerous.

John Quinn



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