Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 (1830) [58:10]
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Daniele Gatti
rec. live, 1 & 3 April 2016, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
RCO LIVE RCO16006 SACD [58:10]

Daniele Gatti has just taken up the job of Chief Conductor of Amsterdam’s venerable Concertgebouw Orchestra (as of September 2016). To commemorate (and coincide with) the event, RCO Live have rushed out this Symphonie Fantastique that he recorded with them back in April 2016, and you can tell from the cover design that they’ve tried to make it a bit special for the occasion. It’s well played but, unfortunately for them, it’s not a performance that’s worthy of preservation, least of all the commemorative focus they’re trying to give it.

The principal problems come from the conductor. Gatti has an uncontrollable (and inexplicable) tendency to pull the music around and distort any sense of line to an extent that feels quite wilful. His tempi are rather leaden, for a start, most damagingly in the ‘Marche aux supplice’, but that wouldn’t be damaging if his approach was more consistent. Instead, he yanks the line around like a cubist painter, distorting Berlioz’s picture and replacing it with something very unsatisfying. The first movement is the most seriously damaged by this. The initial ‘Reverie’ is stultifyingly slow, but the problems really kick in when the idée fixe arrives. From the five-minute mark, the movement builds up a head of steam to prepare for its first appearance (the most exciting playing in the movement up to that point), but then, at 5:41 when the violins launch into the theme, Gatti slows up bizarrely, fracturing the line and inexplicably killing the drama. Things don’t stay that way, though, and the rest of Berlioz’s exposition is pulled between unmarked accelerandos and ritardandos that start off as annoying but become infuriating.

Even if the first movement is only the most obvious example, the same thing happens repeatedly, and it means that the symphony’s other adrenaline-fuelled moments pass off for very little. The climax of the opening movement, for example, contains no frenzy before subsiding into a treacly church coda, and the emotional high-point of the ‘Scène aux champs’ feels manufactured and synthetic. The Ball scene is effectively light, to be fair, but there is no excitement in the finale, even though the quality of the recording and the playing make this the most successful movement. The spatial mix of the instruments and the percussion effects, most notably the bells and the several drums, is caught very well and the strings bit into the fugue very effectively. However, they are given no energy to steer them, and the performance doesn’t really climax.

All told, then, this is a disappointment and, while it’s obviously unfair to judge a partnership on its first recording, not a good start. There are so many far finer recordings of this work out there, most recently Daniel Harding’s excellent version from the Swedish RSO (review), and if you really want to hear the Concertgebouw playing it then you need go no further than Colin Davis’ 1974 recording on Philips (and now also Pentatone). That’s a real classic of the Gramophone; I can’t see much future for this new one.
Simon Thompson
Previous review: Dan Morgan

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