Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 [47:14]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa
rec. Symphony Hall, Boston USA, February 1973
PENTATONE PTC5186211 SACD [47:14]

Ozawa’s Boston version of the Symphonie fantastique was recorded in 1973 and is here reissued on a surround-sound disc using the quadraphonic tapes DG were employing for some issues at the time.

Ozawa’s account has in some quarters been regarded as an eminently worthy rather than excitingly world-class. Also Pentatone already have the leading version of the Symphonie fantastique from the mid-1970s in their catalogue, also re-mastered from quadraphonic tapes, namely the great Amsterdam Concertgebouw recording under Colin Davis (review). So why have they also chosen to resurrect this one? The answer is it is a fine performance, and the sound has come up very well.

Boston’s reputation in French music has been highly regarded since the days of Charles Munch, whose 1958 version is a classic of its era, and has been reissued by RCA in a three-channel SACD. The Boston Symphony play for Ozawa as they did for Munch, that is with flair and commitment from each section. The surround-sound is clean and satisfying, despite being now more than forty years old. The first movement’s largo opening is evocatively done, expressive in its response to the detailed markings but it is still slightly classical in feeling. It reminds us that Berlioz’s gods were Gluck, Beethoven and Weber, and that his champion Liszt’s innovations lie a long way ahead. Perhaps though the last piu animato could have a touch more abandon. There is no exposition repeat.

The ball scene dances gaily, and there is a nice presence to the important harp parts and good balance when the idée fixe waltzes onto the scene. I do though miss the cornet part here which most conductors of the era – and since – omit. The slow movement is very successful in its chaste way, from a fine cor anglais at the start to a poetic coda, though with the timpani’s distant thunder fractionally closer than some. The bassoons chortle grimly in the march to the scaffold and the Boston brass are terrific here and again in the finale, which has very tangible bells. Overall this is an excellent mainstream interpretation, one of the best of its time and viable still.

Colin Davis (Amsterdam) has generally similar tempo to Ozawa in four of the five movements – his longer playing time of 55:36 is down to his taking the exposition repeat in the first movement. He also has a much slower adagio, 17:06 to Ozawa’s 14:27. On neither disc though will you hear the cornet part sometimes curiously described as ‘optional’. True it’s more decoration than thematically essential, but the composer himself added it to his manuscript, so presumably expected it whenever the — then new — instrument was available. As no less an authority than Kern Holoman has said “the cornet part is a stroke of genius that should be retained”. Well, if we were doctrinaire about that, then the great majority of the most illustrious versions that have ever graced the catalogue can be dismissed, for they almost all leave it out.

Lovers of this work will want more than one version, and if you have Davis (in Amsterdam or Vienna), or this Ozawa, or Beecham, or Bernstein (in New York or Paris), then you need to look next to one of the versions on original instruments, by Gardiner, Norrington or Jos van Immerseel. The last of these has some delightful instrumental colours … including that cornet. This is surely closer to what Berlioz, with his revolutionary orchestral imagination, would have expected. It even has a piano for the bells in the finale – which, surprisingly enough, is both an authentic composer-approved alternative and very effective.

Roy Westbrook
Previous review: Christie Grimstad

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