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,
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical.com
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 àla 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 Symphoniefantastique, which has come up very well as a re-mastered high-res
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
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
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 Chœurd'ombres (Chorus of the Shades),
which recycles music from La morte deCléopâtre (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 TeDeum
(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 Laharpe 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 TheTempest) 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,