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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie Fantastique, Op 14 (1830, transcribed for two pianos by Jean-François Heisser)
Jean-François Heisser and Marie-Josèphe Jude, piano vis-à-vis Pleyel, (Paris 1928)
rec. 2018, Cité de la Musique, Philharmonie de Paris
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902503 [52:28]

The Stradivari Collection is a collaboration between Harmonia Mundi and the recently opened Paris Philharmonie, whose Museum of Music houses a large collection of rare and unusual instruments, characterised in the project’s logo as ‘The Great Instrumentarium’. The Collection promises a series of recordings featuring some of these artefacts. The first volume featured Christophe Rousset playing Louis Couperin on a 1652 Joannes Couchet harpsichord, and was enthusiastically reviewed by my colleague Stephen Greenbank late last year. This new disc offers something completely different; a two-piano arrangement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique made by Jean-François Heisser some three decades ago; he performs it here with Marie-Josèphe Jude on a single instrument, the extraordinary Pleyel double piano (or piano vis-à-vis). Essentially this involves a single case which embodies two grand piano keyboards, which share a soundboard and a frame, but which possess their own individual strings and pedals. A fascinating note for this issue by Thierry Maniguet, the curator of the Museum of Music traces the history of the instrument right back to the Clavessin of the late 17th century which existed in versions with multiple manuals but also in the form of a square case with keyboards at either end. The 1928 double piano used here was one of 74 produced by the Pleyel company and graced its showroom until being acquired by the Museum in 1983.

I have read one or two reviews of this disc which compare Heisser’s arrangement most unfavourably with Liszt’s famous version for single piano (S.470). This has been recorded on several occasions, most notably by Roger Muraro, Idil Biret (twice) and inevitably Leslie Howard in his complete Liszt Piano Edition for Hyperion. Perhaps the comparison is a little unfair: the transcriptions are very different in both substance and purpose. As well as being a showman and virtuoso, eager to latch on to the next ‘big thing’, Liszt was also an enabler (or ‘influencer’ if one is to adopt today’s argot). Orchestras of the time had never encountered anything along the lines of the Symphonie and by all accounts its early performances were often frenetic and confused; consequently publishers weren’t exactly falling over themselves to publish the work. It fell, as a result, to Liszt (as an admirer and friend of the composer) to transcribe the piece for solo piano in 1834 and get it into print, and essentially keep the work ‘current’ until it was eventually published in its orchestral form in 1845, fifteen years after its premiere. In his note to this issue Heisser admits some surprise that his illustrious predecessor didn’t follow the two-piano route and eloquently justifies his arrangement as an attempt to reimagine Berlioz’s sound-world in a more spacious reduction that would potentially elucidate Berlioz’s polyphony and increase the potential for more variegated tone-colour. It’s a different kind of transcription then, and on paper at least seems to constitute perfect repertoire to try out on this strange instrument. The question is; does Heisser’s version pique anything beyond one’s curiosity about the Pleyel?

In the opening Rêveries – Passions, as one becomes accustomed to the sound of the instrument there seem to be clear intention on the part of the two players to vary the colour, but the arrangement actually seems rather un-pianistic to my ears (Berlioz did not ‘think’ in such terms in any case – frankly the work is so odd it’s hardly surprising that Liszt’s transcription is gawky and awkward in places as well). The episodic nature of the original doesn’t help, but in this account this movement strikes me as particularly fragmented, with so much focus on individual trees that one isn’t really aware of actually being in a wood. There are certainly beguiling passages – for instance the timbres of the odd music (it almost seems to pre-figure Sibelius) just prior to the movement’s conclusion (from 11:20) are mysterious and spooky, but the final chords just seem generalised and woolly.

Un bal is better, more poised in the waltz and lighter on its feet in its overall shape although listeners hoping to ‘hear’ the harp textures that dominate the original will be disappointed; in this regard, in terms of the improved timbral differentiation Heisser sought in this arrangement it really doesn’t happen here – though one cannot be sure whether this is down to the transcription or the instrument. Or both. However in the central slow movement Scene aux champs Berlioz’s conception of the shepherds’ dialogue via oboe and cor anglais is nicely characterised and discreetly shaded, in a ‘less is more’ kind of way. Elsewhere in the movement however I found the Pleyel’s sound dull and rather raw; from 7:40 it evoked the sound of a silent film accompaniment. The distant thunder at the movement’s conclusion emerges fitfully.

There’s plenty of detail in the Marche au supplice but over-familiarity with Berlioz’s original left this listener feeling a little bit empty after hearing this account. Again, to my ears at least, the individual events in Heisser’s transcription don’t really cohere into a clear narrative, though one detail that is magically brought out in this panel is the ‘last thought of the beloved’ in the form of the bare reference to the idée fixe just before the guillotine falls, although the execution of the execution itself, as it were, sounds just too ‘Charlie Chaplin’, alas. (Or perhaps even Charles Hawtrey, as Le Duc de Pommfrit in ‘Carry On Don’t Lose Your Head’; the guillotine scene in that French Revolution themed romp rather uncharitably chose that moment to come to mind, at the point where Hawtrey’s head is on the block, while a messenger rushes through the baying throng to ascend the platform crying “…urgent letter for the Duc de Pommfritt!!”, to which Hawtrey calmly replies “Put it in the bucket; I’ll read it later”).

For me the grotesquerie of the final Songe d'une nuit du sabbat is by far the most successful element of Heisser’s arrangement, and ironically perhaps the most Lisztian too. But the legendary funeral bell sounds are a bit of a damp squib. The Dies Irae emerges impressively enough, but my final thoughts merely confirmed my suspicion of the instrument; it underwhelms. It sounds tinny in its highest register and clanky and distorted in fortissimi, Notwithstanding Heisser and Jude’s earnest attempts at taming the beast, the Pleyel itself seems reluctant to play along. Despite this Heisser’s arrangement of the finale has been fashioned skilfully and projects no little diabolerie.

A mixed bag, then; a brave performance and arrangement that draws qualified admiration rather than unconditional love on an unyielding instrument. Although I admit my response to Berlioz’s original was always rather muted, at least until I heard Gardiner’s recording with the ORR for Philips in the early 1990s. Moreover, the recorded sound seems somewhat uneven (certainly not as impressive as the Rousset disc from the same location); I suspect the engineers really struggled to produce a consistently pleasing sound. Those of a curious disposition will want to hear this, but it’s not really fair to compare Heisser’s bold enterprise to Liszt’s. Both the arranger and his partner give it their best shot – there is no lack of integrity or imagination here, but I suspect many will find the exotic promise of the instrument is not matched by the reality of its sound.

Richard Hanlon

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