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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14 (1830)
La Chambre Philharmonique/Emmanuel Krivine [55:36]
Bonus commentary [69:29]
rec. live La Cité de la Musique, Paris 27 May 2014 (symphony), 22 Oct 2014 (bonus) 
Sound Format: PCM Stereo, Picture Format: 16:9; Region Code: worldwide
Bonus in French with English & German subtitles
ALPHA 714 DVD [125:05]

Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14 (1830)
Concertgebouw Orchestra/Bernard Haitink
rec. live, 1979, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
Sound Format: PCM Stereo, Picture Format: 4:3; Region Code: worldwide
ARTHAUS MUSIK 109166 DVD [59:00]

Two quite different DVDs of Symphonie fantastique: a classic, modern orchestra performance from Bernard Haitink and a period instrument one from Emmanuel Krivine. Haitink's is a Concertgebouw concert recorded in 1979, so in the heading I've given the then title of the orchestra: it did not become the Royal Concertgebouw until its 100th anniversary in 1988. In 1979, however, Haitink had been its chief conductor for 16 years and could certainly get the best out of it, which is a considerable best. Haitink was then 50 years old but looks younger and this is by turns a searching and animated account from the outset. His first movement Daydreams - Passions introduction is a gasping, hesitating, but also quite piously devoted approach to beauty and in this is well balanced by the reverential coda which concludes the movement. There is fine clarity to the contrast of the soulfully melodic violins' contemplative beauty undercut by the disruptive rhythms of the cellos and double basses, indicating the artist's disturbed state of mind. When the work's distinct vision of the beloved arrives with the main body of the movement, the idée fixe, it has both flexibility and resilience, even if the grace of the first flute doubling is barely audible. Passionate outbursts abound while the excitement grows even more intense in the development. A suitably melancholic ambience is created to usher in an expansive but slightly nebulous oboe solo.

Krivine takes us into the 21st century with crisper video in widescreen and more vivid sound. He also takes us back to the 19th century with period instruments. With a smaller body of strings than Haitink's you note first the intimacy of the period violins and sweetness of melody, creating a stronger feeling of yearning, but equally the sharper edge to the dissonances with the undercutting disruptive lower strings. The idée fixe is presented with more vivacity and notable accents. The climax is more exultant, the coda warmer. I like Krivine's greater sweep, yet curiously Haitink conveys more dynamism. This is partly because his larger orchestra and the more mellow acoustic of the Concertgebouw produces a fuller dynamic range and contrast, partly because of the difference in the conductors' approaches. You see Haitink fully involved in the changing emotions of the music with expansive gestures. Krivine is more laid back with vibrancy confined largely to whirling stick movements. This contrast affects the orchestral response. For me the Concertgebouw Orchestra seems to approach the work as an act of present exploration whereas La Chambre Philharmonique offers it adeptly as a preconceived whole. The comparative timings are Haitink 14:51, Krivine 13:53. I'll give these for all movements because oddly neither DVD does. The Alpha DVD, though not the Arthaus, lacks separate 'chapters' for the symphony's movements.

Haitink's A Ball second movement presents its waltz with delicacy and charm before the appearance of the idée fixe.  Haitink whips up a heady, exciting climax before the more pastoral evocation of the  idée fixe. The return to the ballroom in the coda is thrilling. Though  Krivine's timing of the movement, 6:16, is identical to Haitink's, he seems to press forward more, creating a more active waltz, less charming than Haitink's, with more edge from the period violins and a more sensitive horn accompaniment. In this context the re-introduction of the idée fixe theme has more charm and is more at one with the waltz accompaniment. The climax is energetic and merry, but less exciting. Krivine's return to the idée fixe is tranquil enough, but less pastoral than Haitink's. His coda is vigorous but more controlled and thus less ecstatic. Both accounts feature Berlioz's late addition of a solo cornet.

The third movement, In the meadows, begins with a dialogue between a very present cor anglais and distant oboe. This isn't a problem musically because Haitink's and Krivine's oboe sounds softer and distant but there's a case on DVD for showing that distance visually. This isn't done in either DVD. You don't see the oboist until later when he is back next to the cor anglais player, now playing second oboe. The movement's main theme in which flutes creamily double the first violins, is sensitively realized by Haitink, becoming increasingly searching and then achieving an intense, concentrated calm. When the violas and cellos later take up the theme, accompanied by wind chirping, the effect is heavier until the violins again come to the fore. Haitink transforms the pastoral mood as the tensions around it increase. The thunder of the 4 kettledrummers is less defined than it might be. All that remains is the return of the opening cor anglais music, now desolate and without a melodic response.

Krivine at 14:55 is a deal swifter than Haitink (16:46) and Krivine makes the cattle herders more blithely folksy while the surrounding atmosphere is  more urgently dramatic. The following main theme, though as well balanced as Haitink's, seems more calculated. The sentiment lacks Haitink's cogency. However its structure is clear and conveyed by Krivine in lovely sound. The violas and cellos take-up the theme more warmly for Krivine and the wind chirping is more calmly integrated. Later his lower string interjections create more of a frisson where Haitink's are simply gruff. Krivine reveals the dramatic shifts, the changeability, the light and shade of the movement, well, but for me his approach is too dispassionate. This is notable in the extended clarinet solo shortly after the mid movement fortissimo and the closing cor anglais solo. Krivine's 4 kettledrummers are a touch more distinct than Haitink's with better detailing of the their differing lines. 

The March to the scaffold is, according to Berlioz's programme notes, a mix of the 'fierce and sombre' and 'stately and brilliant'. At the beginning, with clarinets, bassoon and horns in low register, Haitink's sombreness is of a stiff and formal military kind but it's punctuated by tuttis of chilling brutality. Once the trumpets, cornets and trombones join the horns and full woodwind in a proper march tune everything comes splendidly to life yet the underlying brutality of the proceedings remain. The clarinet is required to deliver the idée fixe theme 'very sweetly and passionately' before it is truncated by the drum signal for the axe to strike. Haitink's clarinet makes it both an anguished recollection and garish awareness of the present, which for me works well. Krivine's slightly more measured approach emphasises military precision and discipline with more calculated unleashing of power.  This march is more gaudy so the scene overall is grim and relentless, save for idée fixe which is here beauteous, pleading and the more poignant for being out of kilter with the rest.

In the finale, Sabbath Night's Dream, I wonder if a DVD's visual experience is more of a hindrance than a help. Much of Berlioz's sound world is concerned with extremes: 'Can I hear it?', followed by 'Can I bear it?'. Haitink does these contrasts well but the softness is scary because it is ghostly and yet seeing the ghosts, like the third horn player's ppp and pppp echoing the woodwind, mars the insubstantiality. In contrast you should see the clarinet soloist because he presents the idée fixe theme now, as Berlioz wanted it, 'trivial and grotesque', but also marked 'far away' at the beginning, before a gradual crescendo. It's as if the loved one is distant, then suddenly comes very quickly onto the scene in lurid detail, for which you really need a dancer! The bells are marked off stage and this is how Krivine presents them but in the Haitink DVD we see two suspended metal plates with the notes G and C marked on them: efficient but lacking in foreboding. The camera's selectivity can also deceive: that woodwind phrase which the horn echoes is only shown played on the Haitink DVD by the piccolo, but it's doubled by flute and oboe, as seen in the Krivine DVD. However, it's good to see the Dies Irae first presented by two ophicleides because that visually makes the point that this is a burlesque parody of the Latin hymn describing the Day of Judgement. Regretably Haitink uses the ophicleides' successor, the tuba. Krivine goes in the other direction with one ophicleide and one serpent, the instrument's predecessor. What the visual presentation of both performances does clarify is that this finale is both technically and physically demanding, a challenge which both meet with relish. To sum up, Krivine brings you closer to Berlioz's sound world but Haitink more vividly conveys his intent.

The Haitink DVD offers just the performance, the Krivine is much enhanced by bonus items. Firstly, there's a commentary by Krivine as an audio track superimposed over a duplicate video of the performance. Most valuable are those occasions when the comment is directly on the complexity of the music, such as the difficulty of synchronizing the mixing of violins and horn solo in the first movement. There are comparisons: Berlioz is more intellectual than Schumann but in both the emotion is very clear. Krivine favours a semblance of improvisation: he doesn't play repeats exactly the same way. He identifies the players, their varying nationalities and characteristics with a mix of discernment and affection. Next, three players make presentations. The bassoon player tells us why period bassoons project better with brighter sound than modern ones. The timpanist demonstrates how the sound of period timpani is clearer and can achieve more dynamic contrast than modern timpani. The violinist points out the differences between a 1797 and 1866 instrument, the increased flexibility but diminished sound of the latter. Thirdly, these players join Krivine in a round table discussion which again contains insights: the value of the 'vulnerability' of period instruments in comparison with the precision of modern ones; this orchestra as 'a listening family' which 'proposes ideas', which makes for an energizing environment; the conductor as 'an outside ear' who also has to embody the work, at once distant and very present.

Michael Greenhalgh

Previous review (Haitink):  John Quinn



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