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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 (1830) [58:10]
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Daniele Gatti
rec. live, 1 & 3 April 2016, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
Reviewed as a 24/192 download from eClassical
Pdf artwork included; no liner-notes
RCO LIVE RCO16006 SACD [58:10]

This multi-platform release – on SACD, DVD/Blu-ray and as a download – was timed to coincide with Daniele Gatti’s installation as the Concertgebouw’s chief conductor on 9th September 2016. The appointment followed Mariss Jansons’ decision to step down after eleven years at the helm of this great orchestra. I was never a great fan of that partnership, but then I’ve always disliked Jansons’ tendency to micromanage his players, whether in Oslo, Amsterdam or Munich. As for Gatti he first came to my attention in Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra and the Lulu Suite (RCO8004); however, it was his hard-hitting RCO Mahler Fifth that impressed me most. 

It’s no coincidence that both those recordings were made with the Concertgebouw, a band sorely in need of a change after the Jansons years. And where better to start than with Berlioz’s orchestral showpiece, the Symphonie fantastique? By happy coincidence Sir Colin Davis led the Concertgebouw in what is still one of the most spectacular accounts of the piece, recorded for Philips in 1974. Those who prefer a HIPP-inspired approach will prefer Gardiner, Norrington and van Immerseel, but for sheer virtuosity and sonic slam Davis’s vintage version is hard to beat.

I would happily have stowed that one in my steamer trunk had I not come across two alternatives which, in their own way, reinvigorate this game-changing score. First was Robin Ticciati’s wonderfully transparent account with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Linn); second was Riccardo Muti’s hot-blooded Chicago one (CSO Resound). Indeed, the SCO disc was one of my Recordings of the Year for 2012. What makes the Muti so special is that it’s paired with the symphony’s ‘other half’, Lélio, ou Le retour à la vie (Lélio, or The return to life). Sumptuous sound meets luxury casting in the form of Gérard Depardieu as the narrator. Not to be missed.

As for Gatti, that RCO Mahler Fifth suggests he has the grip and temperament to weld structure and emotion into a strong, convincing whole. Compared with Muti his take on Rêveries - Passions seems rather cool, but the refinement and elegance of the Concertgebouw's playing is beyond question. Also, there’s a lightness to the performance that reminds me of Ticciati at times. All well and good, but I really miss the undertow of tension/excitement that Davis and Muti find in this atmospheric opener. Surprisingly the RCO recording is no match for the oomph that you get with Davis or Muti.

One could argue that Gatti’s approach is more Classical than Romantic, and that brings its own rewards in terms of detail and clarity. Ticciati is broadly similar in that respect, but even at this early stage there's a whiff of danger that you don't get in Gatti’s safe - even tepid - reading. That said, Un bal is attractive enough, with fine playing and fairly supple rhythms. What puzzles and frustrates me though is the feeling that Gatti’s holding back. I suspect the relatively distant recording has something to do with that impression; both Davis and Muti sound much more vivid and visceral. Ticciati, less overt than either, stays taut and involving throughout.

Alas, it gets worse. The central Scène aux champs is devoid of all lift and character – Muti is in another league entirely – and that leaching lack of imagination and empathy is just fatal. How disengaged the Concertgebouw seem here, how tentative and shapeless Gatti’s direction. And if you’re expecting even a hint of frisson at the gathering storm, forget it. The plodding Marche au supplice is a travesty and those eruptive  tuttis sound especially brash and vulgar. As for the return of the idée fixe before the blade falls, it has none of the edge-of-seat anticipation that one usually experiences at this point.

Yes, Gatti’s Songe d’une nuit de sabbat is marginally more propulsive, but there’s a sense of lockdown that’s inimical to the spirit of this strange finale. Indeed, it brings to mind Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s equally constricting Rotterdam performance, recorded for BIS. Sadly, the rather distant RCO balance means the all-important bells make no impact at all. Frankly, this is the dullest Symphonie fantastique I’ve heard in ages, and not at all what I expected from this conductor. The short playing time and skimpy documentation aren’t ideal, either. There's no applause.

Gatti can do a lot better than this, and I’m sure he will as he ‘beds in’. Ironically, Nina Siegal of the New York Times described him as a ‘creative risk-taker’; listening to his Berlioz you’d never guess it.

Dan Morgan



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