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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 (1830) [54:48]
Lélio, ou le retour à la vie, Op. 14b (1831) [59:54]
Gérard Depardieu (narrator), Mario Zeffiri (tenor), Kyle Ketelsen (bass-baritone)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Riccardo Muti
rec. live, 2010, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, Chicago, USA
CSO RESOUND CSOR9011501 [54:48 + 59:54]

The Symphonie fantastique, one of the most characteristic works by Berlioz, and the very type of the Romantic programme symphony, in fact looks backwards as well as forwards. It is loosely modelled on Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony, the most significant programme symphony of its time. Like the Pastoral it is in five movements, which explore feelings rather than events, with the fourth functioning as an introduction to the finale. Berlioz exchanges the position of the scherzo and slow movement with his Ball Scene being effectively a scherzo, and a slow movement which is a pastoral scene paralleling Beethoven’s scene by a brook. There are also many Romantic features, including the drug-induced dream, the guillotine, witchcraft and a flirtation with the demonic. The emotional current is in the opposite direction to Beethoven’s, towards imagined death and punishment instead of refreshment and thanksgiving. Berlioz also introduces a unifying device, the idée fixe, representing the beloved, which occurs in every movement. It is an early example of the leitmotif which Liszt and Wagner were to take up so enthusiastically.

Riccardo Muti excels in Romantic programme symphonies, with fine versions of Liszt’s Faust Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Manfred to his credit, not to mention an earlier and well-regarded EMI Classics version of the Symphonie fantastique from his time with the Philadelphia Orchestra. However, that dates from 1985 so thirty years later is not too soon to revisit the work. Moreover, Muti has not previously recorded Lélio, the problematic sequel to the Symphonie fantastique, of which more anon.

In Rêveries – Passions, the opening movement of the Fantastique, I was immediately struck by the eloquence and beauty of the opening string lines and the lovely playing of the sobbing wind phrases. Indeed, throughout the performance the technical excellence of the playing is most impressive: intonation, ensemble, balance and observance of the written dynamics and phrasing. Muti also follows the sudden changing moods and variations in texture, with off-beat accents and sudden blasts from the brass. He captures the authentic Berlioz glitter and holds the long line of the idée fixe together.

In Un Bal I was impressed by the clarity with which the important harp lines are heard. Berlioz writes two harp parts but hopes for two instruments on each part. That I don’t suppose he ever gets, but Muti and the engineers have balanced things skilfully so that the sound is clear without being exaggerated and the movement goes with a whirl.

The Scène aux champs can outstay its welcome but Muti keeps it moving and again I noticed the excellence of the wind playing. The ending, where the shepherd’s pipe is answered, not by his companion as at the beginning, but by rumbles of thunder, is a challenge as Berlioz writes parts for four separate timpani with overlapping rolls. It's admirably clear here.

The Marche au supplice was in fact salvaged from an abandoned opera, Les francs-juges, but fits perfectly here and is both grotesque and savage as it should be. The four bassoons, which play a fast obbligato to the main march theme, cover themselves with glory. The brief appearance of the idée fixe, cut short by the stroke of the axe, is really vivid.

The Songe d’une nuit du sabbat opens most atmospherically and later we have a very nimble E flat clarinet shrieking out the idée fixe in a contemptuous diminution. This being a modern instrument performance the Dies irae comes in on tubas rather than ophicleides as Berlioz specified. There are now several original instrument performances if you want to hear how it originally sounded, but I am quite happy with modern instruments. The final combination of themes goes with a will and rounds off a very successful performance.

Taking this work on its own I can heartily endorse this version. Muti really understands the idiom and also does not play this famous orchestral showpiece as a showpiece but as the bold and exciting work it is. While not perhaps as wild and ferocious as the classic old performances by Paray and Munch (see Masterwork Index for seven reviews of Munch recordings), the execution is almost flawless. If I compare it with my benchmark, the 1974 performance by Colin Davis with the Concertgebouw (review), I find Davis superior both in tenderness in the gentle passages and in menace in the sinister ones. However, it is a close-run thing, and Muti here enjoys a greatly superior recording. Incidentally, although it is noted as recorded live, it was taken down over four performances, so not surprisingly the engineers have assembled a fine composite; I noticed only one moment of imprecise ensemble.
 
Lélio is a problem child. The idea is that the hero of the fantastique now appears before us and is gradually restored to life as a creative artist in a process represented through a succession of six pieces interspersed with narration. Berlioz originally called this work Le retour à la vie but later named it Lélio, possibly from a story by Georges Sand which was published on the same day as its first performance. He wrote the narration himself and it reflects his preoccupation with love, magic and artistic creation and also his abiding passion for Goethe and Shakespeare. He then said that it formed a whole with the fantastique and that the two together comprised the Episode de la vie d’un artiste.

This might have worked had the six pieces genuinely reflected a progress, as indeed do the five movements of the Fantastique. In fact, in assembling it Berlioz recycled earlier works which he thought were too good to leave in his bottom-drawer. He was right about that but the combination is unsatisfying and unconvincing, the narration a load of old hokum and performances of the fantastique with Lélio are rare indeed.

The narration is here given with supreme professionalism by the veteran French actor Gérard Depardieu and he wins my admiration for performing it with passion without exaggeration. That said, the text is pretty insufferable and I can’t imagine many listeners wanting to hear it through more than once. Fortunately it is separately tracked and can easily be cut out.

The six pieces are a different matter. Le pêcheur (The fisherman) is a ballad by Goethe, translated into French, for tenor and piano. It is attractively sung by Mario Zeffiri with a distinctive but occasionally unsteady voice. I wonder why Berlioz didn’t orchestrate this, as he did several of his other songs.

It is followed by the impressive Choeur d’ombres (Chorus of shades). This sombre piece derives from Berlioz’s Prix de Rome cantata Cléopâtre but is reworked here to evoke the ghost scene in Hamlet, which it does most effectively with low brass and strings over a pulsing bass. It seems to me to anticipate the final scene of Les Troyens many years later. This is high praise.

The Chanson des brigands (Song of brigands – these were another Romantic preoccupation) is a swashbuckling and rather coarse number, with a solo part for a baritone, here performed with gusto by Kyle Ketelsen.

The Chant du bonheur (song of bliss) in contrast is gentle and lyrical. It is another survivor from a Prix de Rome cantata, in this case La mort d’Orphée. It is put in the mouth of Lélio, tenor Mario Zeffiri again, and there is a prominent harp part.
 
La harpe éolienne – Souvenirs (The Aeolian harp – memories) derives from the same source and is for instruments alone, with a prominent solo part for clarinet.

Finally we come to the Fantasie sur la tempête de Shakespeare (Fantasia on Shakespeare’s The Tempest). This is partly choral and partly purely orchestral and falls into several distinct sections. The words are, rather strangely, in Italian, uncredited. The work is episodic in the extreme.

Muti and his forces do their best with all this but nothing can make Lélio a satisfactory work. To quote the great Donald Tovey, who is at his most amusing when writing about Berlioz: ‘There are good things in Lélio, but its scheme is supremely absurd and its final fantasia is beyond redemption by the canonizers of Berlioz’. Still, as one who is quite happy to canonize Berlioz I like to hear it, or some of it, from time to time. However, that makes it a particularly good case for recording, when you can enjoy the good things without bothering about the overall scheme.

For reasons which should by now be obvious there are few recordings of the fantastique together with Lélio. There is an old coupling of the two by Martinon, dating from 1973 and 1975, in analogue sound and well regarded. A more recent coupling comes from Dutoit in 1985, where the Fantastique seems to me acceptable without being remarkable and the Lélio is good. So if you want the two together this coupling by Muti is now the front-runner. On the other hand, if you already have a Fantastique you are happy with and want to explore Lélio on its own, Michael Cookson liked a version of it under Thomas Dausgaard (review here).

The recording of both works offers a good concert hall acoustic. I am rather surprised it has taken the Chicago Symphony orchestra five years to issue these fine performances. The booklet has a good essay and the complete text of Lélio in French or Italian and English.

Stephen Barber

Previous review: Dan Morgan (Recording of the Month)

 

 




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