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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie Fantastique [47:12]
Overture: Le Carnaval Romain [7:58]
La Damnation de Faust (orchestral excerpts) [12:11]
Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra/van Beinum
rec. Sept. 1951 (Le Carnaval Romain), September 1951 (Symphonie Fantastique), May 1952 (La Damnation de Faust)
ELOQUENCE 4825569 [67:37]

This is a fascinating re-issue. Van Beinum was a true great, and his period at the Concertgebouw is seen as a classic era. He might not have been quite as ‘charismatic’ as Mengelberg, his predecessor, or Haitink, his successor; but recordings such as this show how deep and sophisticated was his musicianship. In the post-war era, he quickly transformed the Concertgebouw into the great orchestra we recognise today.

This recording of the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, as well as the shorter works, presents him and his orchestra at their best. The individual playing of wind soloists is distinguished, and the strings have a silky and very beautiful sheen to their tone. Of course, part of this is due to the quite remarkable sound quality of the Decca recording. The company was itself going through a golden era, and admirable re-mastering has been done by Chris Bernauer (this issue comes to us from Australia).

I cannot remember a more magical invocation of the dream-like introduction to the first movement of the symphony. The ‘Passions’ of the Allegro that follows are vividly portrayed, and the ‘Ballroom’ movement has all the grace and elegance you could ask for. The recording places the harps perfectly so that their glistening arpeggios can be heard to full advantage.

The various ‘special effects’ in the piece all make a great impact; for the oboe/cor anglais duet at the start of the ‘Scène aux champs’ we find the off-stage oboe perfectly balanced. In some recordings it can just sound a bit ‘off-mic’ – here it really sounds as if it’s floating to us across the valley. The gathering storm in the timpani is, again, highly atmospheric, while the off-stage chimes in the ‘Songe d’une nuit de Sabbat’ are appropriately spine-chilling. I don’t know what they’ve used for those bells; if this were a modern recording, I would suspect that they were sampled church bells, but that is obviously not the case. The cavernous, slightly unreal quality is exactly what’s required.

Add to those qualities the swaggering trumpets in the ‘Marche au supplice’: the splendidly flatulent trombone pedal notes in the same movement: some exquisitely poetic woodwind playing in the ‘Scène aux champs’: and the tearaway ending of the finale, where van Beinum lets the orchestra go berserk in the most controlled way; and there you have just some of the ingredients of a truly great rendering of this extraordinary masterpiece.

The other items are absolutely on the same level. Carnaval Romain has a plaintively expressive cor anglais solo, followed by an Allegro vivace full of boisterous humour and wonderful contrasts of tone.

After all the thrills and spills of the symphony and the overture, the two comparative miniatures from La Damnation de Faust are a welcome relief. Again, van Beinum’s balancing of forces ensures that that tiny details, such the isolated harp notes in the ‘Ballet des Sylphes’, come through with the utmost clarity. The woodwind ensemble is pure joy in the ‘Menuets des Follets’, and the famous ‘Marche hongroise’ makes a suitably uproarious conclusion.

This really is quite a disc; snap it up and enjoy!

Gwyn Parry-Jones



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