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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. live, 1979, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
TV director: Hans Hulscher
Sound Format: PCM Stereo
Picture Format: 4:3; Region Code: worldwide; Resolution: 1080i High Definition
ARTHAUS MUSIK 109167 Blu-ray [59:00]

Berlioz isn’t the first composer whose name springs to mind in association with Bernard Haitink so that makes this Blu-ray disc welcome. It’s a 1979 performance as transmitted on Dutch TV. The performance comes from the heyday of Haitink’s long tenure (1961-1988) as principal conductor of what was then the Concertgebouw Orchestra – the title ‘Royal’ was conferred on the orchestra in 1988. Haitink would have been 50 at the time of this concert.

It’s a good performance. Haitink sculpts the slow introduction to the first movement with great care. When the pace picks up in the wilful, impetuous allegro Haitink gets energised playing from the orchestra. The second movement Valse is graceful and very nicely inflected. The optional cornet part is included.

The Scène aux champs is very well done though at the start it is difficult to hear the echoing offstage oboe. As you might expect, the playing is refined and later, after the initial scene-setting, there’s a suitable degree of passion in Haitink’s interpretation. The timpanists’ distant thunder is just that – distant. In one sense that’s appropriate but, actually, I think the main reason is that the recording presents the sound of the drums in a muffled way. The Marche au supplice proceeds at a firm, ominous tread and the music is projected powerfully. The nightmarish vision of the finale comes off quite well though I must say I’ve heard more urgent and scary renditions. A pair of suspended metal plates is used for the tolling bells and the effect is satisfactory. Haitink whips up the tension very effectively as the music unfolds and he’s extremely animated in the closing pages. The Amsterdam audience responds with a prolonged standing ovation.

This is a thoroughly musical account, as you’d expect given the orchestra and conductor involved, and it’s one that commands respect. However, it didn’t sweep me off my feet. Haitink is, perhaps, more successful in the first three movements; the last two lack the necessary touch of wildness.

However, as far as I’m concerned the problem with this release is presentational. The picture quality is satisfactory, although the camera-work is a bit unimaginative. The 4:3 picture format makes the images seem constricted. The main problem is the sound, however. It’s not at all sharp; in fact, it’s rather fuzzy. The bass isn’t well defined – note my comments above about the timpani in the third movement – nor is the sound of the high woodwind instruments. Even though we’re dealing with a recording that is some 36 years old I would have expected more sharply defined sound and pictures from a Blu-ray disc. Just to be sure I also played it as an audio disc through the Blu-ray player that is connected to my audio equipment but the sound was no better defined. Finally, the Arthaus presentation is somewhat shoddy. There’s no menu on the disc that I could discover and the “notes”, such as they are, consist of a few very generalised sentences on the back of the case.

Admirers of Bernard Haitink, of which I am one, will be glad to have this performance but the music-making is let down by inferior presentation and by sound and vision which are not up to modern standards.

John Quinn



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