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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, 23-25, 28 September 2010, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, Chicago, USA
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from
Pdf booklet includes sung and spoken texts (French and English)
CSO RESOUND CSOR9011501 [114:42]

Not another Symphonie fantastique, I hear you groan. You might well shake your head but this is one piece that, in the right hands, can sound as fresh and innovative as the day it was written. Robin Ticciati’s recording certainly reveals and revitalises this masterly score in ways I scarcely thought possible; not surprisingly that SACD was one of my Recordings of the Year in 2012 (review). Much less familiar is the sequel to this symphony, Lélio, ou le retour à la vie (Lélio, or the return to life). As the piece is half music half monologue Berlioz dubbed it a mélologue. In fact the two works were supposed to be performed together; they were presented that way in Paris on 9 December 1832, and again at a Weimar concert in 1855. In 2010 Riccardo Muti and the CSO paired the pieces in a series of concerts, from which this recording was made.

Muti and his Chicago band certainly turned heads and tweaked ears with their recent CSO Resound recording of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet suites (review). That confirmed both maestro and orchestra are in good health; the engineering is first-class too, and that augurs well for Berlioz’s more spectacular moments. Those seeking alternative versions of these two pieces might wish to try Charles Dutoit and the OSM on Decca, or Jean Martinon’s double bill on EMI/Warner (review). Sir Colin Davis’s Lélio (Philips) is somewhat disappointing; he omits the narration and, for once, his performance lacks conviction.

No such caveats about his legendary Concertgebouw recording of the Symphonie fantastique, which has come up very well as a re-mastered high-res download (review). Both performance and sound are staggering, and despite a host of promising pretenders – Ticciati prominent among them – Davis has yet to lose his crown. That said, it did slip a little with his Berlioz re-makes for LSO Live; they just don’t have the proselytizing zeal that makes his Philips sets so very special.

Muti isn’t a conductor I associate with Berlioz, but in the concert hall and on record he’s demonstrated he has the temperament for this kind of repertoire. If anything he can be too volatile at times, so it will be interesting to see how he deals with the delirious and potentially overheated elements of this mould-breaking score. The opening bars of Rêveries - Passions should cause an outbreak of goose bumps; I’m pleased to report that Muti succeeds on that score. As if that weren’t impressive enough the playing is simply ravishing, as is the detailed, tonally sophisticated sound. So often live recordings demand sonic compromises, but that's emphatically not the case here.

Goodness, this is shaping up to be a memorable performance. The strings are silken and the all-important woodwinds are both articulate and characterful. Most importantly Muti delivers a compelling narrative, and that’s what sets the superior performances apart from the merely interesting ones. Also, the timps are punchy but not overbearing, and these Chicagoans respond to Muti's direction with all the commitment and passion that the piece demands. Another good sign is that one is awed anew by the sheer range and subtlety of Berlioz’s orchestral palette; indeed, there’s an iridescence to the closing bars of this movement that took my breath away.

If anything Un bal is even lovelier; Muti springs the waltz rhythms with ease and elegance, and the gorgeous harp is very well caught. I’m especially grateful for the conductor’s sense of pace and proportion, which allow all-important strands and phrases to emerge in a most natural and organic way. There are no polemics here, no unnecessary emphases or underlinings, and the narrative thread is never stretched or broken. Such seamless and beautifully shaped readings of this movement are rarer than you’d think; some might feel Muti is a little too refined here, but when the playing and sound are this distinguished that hardly seems to matter.

In fact I’d say this symphony has never been so well recorded, its body and brilliance so effortlessly rendered. The central Scène aux champs is as beguiling as it gets, and the forensic recording brings forth all manner of hidden detail. As before tension is never allowed to dissipate, and the shepherds’ gentle piping hangs, as if suspended, in the storm-charged air. It’s actually quite a difficult effect to pull off, but Muti and his doughty band make it look so easy. It helps that the soundstage is so wide and so deep, as this contributes to a palpable sense of space, of a grateful acoustic in which the music is able to live and breathe. In short, a genuine you-are-there experience.

As expected the dynamic swings of the Marche au supplice are encompassed without strain, although Muti isn’t quite as vivid or as visceral as Davis here. Then again there are many ways to play this music, and Muti is no less riveting. Indeed, the elegance of both the playing and the recording bring a frisson of their own. The sizzle- and spit-free cymbals are superbly caught, as is the bass drum, and the pause and reprise of the idée fixe just before the blade falls is as theatrically intense, as breath-bating, as I’ve ever heard it.

The Songe d’une nuit de sabbat is no less satisfying; energetic yet expertly focused, with decent, real-world bells and a bass drum to die for, this is the perfect end to a truly fabulous performance. Where does that leave Davis? His Concertgebouw recording is still a classic, but thanks to Muti's fine musicianship and the technical prowess of David Frost and his team Sir Colin’s forty-year reign might just be at an end. Yes, this newcomer really is that good.

If the symphony was Berlioz's impassioned response to his infatuation with the Irish actress Harriet Smithson then Lélio deals with the despair that followed his break-up with (Marie) Camille Moke. In that sense there's a pleasing symmetry to these pieces; indeed, the idée fixe that symbolises the beloved in the first is reprised in the second, along with other material Berlioz had penned earlier. The difference here is that the artist flirts with death but is pulled back from the abyss by his abiding love of Shakespeare and his belief in the healing powers of great music. The work ends simply, with Lélio’s artistic and emotional equilibrium restored.

In essence Lélio charts that typically Romantic tussle between head and heart, optimism and despair; it’s made up of six titled movements, linked by spoken text. In this recording the narrator is none other than the noted French actor Gérard Depardieu, who first caught my eye in Claude Berri’s 1986 film of Marcel Pagnol’s Jean de Florette. Depardieu's roles may have become less pivotal in recent years, but there’s no doubting his star quality here.

The first musical number, Le pêcheur, is a lovely French setting of Goethe’s ballad Der Fischer (The Fisherman). The intimate, salon-like style of the piece – pianist and tenor atmospherically distant – is simple yet poignant. For a composer (in)famous for his large-scale creations it's inward ones such as this that linger longest in one’s mind. The Chicago chorus are wonderfully incisive in the Chœur d'ombres (Chorus of the Shades), which recycles music from La morte de Cléopâtre (1829). The muffled bass drum and flashes of pomp that bring to mind the composer’s great ceremonial pieces – the Requiem (1838), the Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale (1843) and the Te Deum (1855) – are presented here with astonishing presence and power.

The Chanson de brigands (Brigands' Song) finds Berlioz in sparkling, unfettered form. Both the all-male chorus and their Captain - the latter sung by the bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen - acquit themslves with a bracing blend of style and clarity. One senses that Muti’s decades in the pit give this music an electric presence that speaks more of the opera house than the concert hall. Ditto the Chant de bonheur - Hymne (Song of Bliss - Hymn), in which the artist - represented by the tenor Mario Zeffiri - celebrates his return to life and happiness. This is Berlioz at his loveliest and most transparent; the playing here and in the purely orchestral La harpe éolienne (The Aeolian Harp) is simply magical. Both pieces are drawn from Berlioz's La mort d’Orphée (1827).

After those travails life’s luminous possibilities are glimpsed at last. Depardieu, magnetic throughout, calibrates his delivery with care; now pensive, now passionate he really immerses himself in the part. The audience seems just as captivated by the unfolding drama, the spell broken only by their gentle, susurrating laughter. As for the now stormy, now diaphanous Fantaisie sur la Tempête de Shakespeare (Fantasy on Shakespeare's The Tempest) Muti ensures it's blessed with both body and a lightness of touch. And while those taut drums, impeccable brass chords and ringing fanfares are a joy to hear the transported chorus deserve a special mention here.

As a Berlioz devotee of many years standing I never tire of hearing this music, even less-well-known pieces such as Lélio. It’s taken this new recording to convince me that the latter is more than just a curiosity; when played, sung and declaimed with such conviction it becomes a work of genuine worth and stature. A bold claim, perhaps, but then Muti’s Lélio – like his Symphonie fantastique – is very special indeed. All I can do here is echo Depardieu’s parting words: Encore! Encore, et pour toujours! ...
Superb, even revelatory accounts of both works; top-flight engineering, too.

Dan Morgan