Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764) Hippolyte et Aricie, suite d’orchestre [15:55] Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869) Symphonie Fantastique [54:58]
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Harding
rec. 7-10 October 2015, Berwaldhallen, Stockholm HARMONIA MUNDI HMC902244 [70:53]
If you’re anything like me then Berlioz and Rameau will, at first glance, look like odd companions for a CD coupling. Who, after all, would think of coupling the high Baroque of Rameau with the arch-Romanticism of Berlioz? Even the booklet notes don’t seem convinced at times: the works were premiered almost exactly a century apart, and they are undeniably both innovative; but couldn’t you say that about hundreds of other pairings of works in the history of music?
On closer inspection, however, the coupling is actually fairly inspired, and hearing the two works together reminds you that Berlioz composed in an entirely different tradition to that of the Austro-Germans and Italians. Not for him the heritage of the symphony and concerto: instead he developed in the line of Tragédie Lyrique, and this disc does us the service of comparing two great French composers who, in their very different ways, set about redrawing the boundaries of the French music of their time. The Swedish RSO do a remarkably convincing job as a period band for Rameau, full of fizz in the faster movements of the Hippolyte suite, and wonderfully languid in the ‘Rondeau Air’, which is played truly gracieusement. There is just enough swagger in the ‘Airs des Matelots’ and lovely business to the Gavottes. Daniel Harding, too, surprises us all by proving himself remarkably adept at baroque phrasing.
There’s more to it than just that, though, and the key seems to lie in the really very surprising string tone that Harding draws from his Swedish orchestra in both works. They have an acidic edge in the Rameau, which reminds you of the period specialists, but Harding’s masterstroke is to carry this on into the Berlioz, creating an utterly distinctive soundworld for the Symphonie Fantastique. They are, in fact, the thing that gives this performance edge, sounding wonderfully wistful in the opening reverie, and you can hear a lot of the crossover in the acidic tone of the strings as the grief wells up just before Reveries became Passions. They certainly sound like they’re using less vibrato, and that also colours the first statement of the idée fixe, which is remarkable both in its crackling energy and its wiry precision. The first movement’s energetic climax has the quality of a manic dance before subsiding into almost ecclesiastical stillness in final bars, and there follows a lovely sway to the ball music, becoming busier but remaining delicate right to the end.
The pinched strings also bring unexpected colour to the ‘Scène aux Champs’, which I found very effective. It meant that the wistfulness of the opening was more pronounced and, when the passion exploded, it was more striking; and the timpani sounded great in the thunder at the end.
It is in the last two movements that the performance really takes off, though. The ‘March to the Scaffold’ is slower than you might expect, and Harding uses that as an excuse to revel in all the idiosyncrasies of both the Berlioz’s orchestration and his orchestra’s playing of it, with marvellously slippery basses and snarling ophicleides. The swirling of the violins around the horns at the march’s climax is thrilling, as is the frenzy of the final bars. The finale is the finest thing on the disc, however. Its dark heart is made even darker by the shuddering, dusky strings (again!) that cast a thrilling shadow over the opening. Harding milks every macabre drop out of the idée fixe’s demonic dance, setting off a swirling cauldron of energy that finally resolves itself into a dark-as-night rendition of the funeral bells and Dies Irae, and here the ophicleides make a huge difference, especially when set off against the gleaming trombones and piccolos. The fugue is tremendously exciting, again because of those strings, sounding tremendous in both their terror and their energy, and the red hot energy of the ending is both awesome and thrilling.
If I began listening to this disc unconvinced then I ended it as a convert. It’s a pairing that is fascinating on both a musical and an intellectual level and, if I might go first to Les Arts Florissants for the Rameau, then for a Symphonie Fantastique played on a modern symphony orchestra in digital sound, this is pretty near the
top of the pile.