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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie fantastique - Épisode de la vie d’un artiste, Op. 14, H. 48 (1830; autograph score) [53:33]
Overture Les Francs-Juges, Op. 3, H. 23 (1826, rev 1829) [12:12]
Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
rec. 2019, Maison de l’Orchestre national d’Île-de-France, Alfortville
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902644 [65:45]

François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles have already been responsible for two of the most exciting and distinguished Berlioz recordings of 2019. I have made their DVD of La Damnation de Faust one of my Recordings of the Year; it just edged out their superb CD of Harold en Italie, mainly because La damnation is one of my Desert Island Berlioz works. Now, right at the end of the Berlioz 150th anniversary year, along comes their new recording of Symphonie fantastique. Will they score a hat trick of Berlioz excellence?

This team has recorded the work before, for the Musicales Actes Sud label. Unfortunately, that disc succumbed to the deletions axe before I could hear it. The catalogue isn’t exactly short of recordings of this, Berlioz’s most popular work: there are over 60 recordings listed in our Masterworks Index, not including this new one. I’ve yielded to temptation a number of times and have several versions on my shelves. Among these, I would particularly prize Sir Colin Davis’s 1974 recording with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (review), which I marginally prefer to his 2000 remake with the LSO (review); Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s version with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique; and Robin Ticciati’s marvellous account with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (review). As far as period instrument performances are concerned, the first in the field, if memory serves me correctly, was from Sir Roger Norrington with the London Classical Players (review). I acquired that when it first came out but for me it was quickly superseded by the aforementioned Gardiner disc. Quite recently, I heard the version by Anima Eterna Brugge and Jos van Immerseel. It would be true to say that I wasn’t entirely bowled over by that one (review), though in fairness, I should say that one or two colleagues were more impressed.

Before dealing with the symphony, let’s consider the performance of the overture, even though it comes last on the disc. While Berlioz was still a student, he conceived the idea of an ambitious opera, Les Francs-Juges. The project wasn’t seen through to fruition but the overture, composed in 1826 and revised three years later, survived. It’s a strange, compelling piece and the timbres of Les Siècles suit it to perfection, enabling all the daring colours and textures to make their mark. Right from the start of the slow introduction the lean sounds of the orchestra command attention – listen to the arrestingly grainy sound of the cellos and basses at 0:26! A little later (1:16) the massed ranks of the brass section make a really imposing intervention. After the baleful introduction, potently projected by Roth and his players, the main allegro springs forth, full of life (3:54). One of the most inventive passages comes at 5:50 where eerie quiet woodwind lines are heard in the background against which there are sinewy string eruptions in the foreground. This all sounds suitably primitive here. And from 7:20 listen out for the soft, menacing drums, more ominous and sepulchral than I can recall hearing in any previous performance. One can’t but be amazed at the febrile invention and originality of the young Berlioz, as displayed in this piece. Roth and Les Siècles give us an ear-opening, dramatic performance which is high on energy levels and atmosphere.

High energy levels and atmosphere are much in evidence too in the performance of Symphonie fantastique. More than that, though, the symphony calls for far more flair and imagination, not to mention subtlety, than was required in the overture. All this it receives in spades at the hands of François-Xavier Roth and his gifted musicians. I decided to make comparisons with Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s 1991 recording with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. That ensemble has been around for so long now that it came as something of a shock when I re-read Gardiner’s booklet note and discovered that this was the orchestra’s first symphonic recording. It needn’t concede any terrain to the Roth recording when it comes to matters of authenticity: Roth’s orchestra boasted a good number of instruments that date from the 1830s, and so are exactly contemporaneous with the symphony, but Gardiner’s team utilised period instruments, some of which were just as venerable. Gardiner went one step further: his recording was made in the old hall of the Paris Conservatoire, the very hall in which the first performance of the symphony took place. To judge by the booklet photos, Roth’s location was a modern concert hall though, as we shall see, he too has a trick up his sleeve when it comes to the matter of authentic locations.

Roth gets the hesitant opening of the work just right; his strings and woodwind are so delicate. At 1:31 the music springs into life for the first time and the transition to that moment is marked by some arrestingly gruff playing from the cellos and basses. Thereafter, the movement unfolds as a mixture of pensive daydreaming episodes and outbursts of passionate ardour, the latter becoming over time the predominant feature. Roth is acutely alive to all these mood changes and he and the orchestra find wonderful light and shade in the music. Gardiner is no less successful in capturing the spirit of the music and in responding to its nuances. His orchestra is very refined or spirited according to the needs of the music. There is one important difference between the two discs, however: Roth’s recording is rather closer and more immediate – not in a bad way – than Gardiner’s. As a result, Gardiner’s sound – though not his performance - seems somewhat softer-grained. This difference in engineering approaches brings interesting results at divers times in the two recordings. Returning to the music itself, as the movement unfolded, I came to relish more and more the impetuosity that Roth often brings to the music. Accents are acutely observed to bring the music strongly to life. The virtuosity which the musicians of Les Siècles demonstrate with their venerable but clearly expertly preserved instruments is a thing of wonder. I must hasten to say, though, that the players of the ORR are no less adept.

In the second movement, ‘Un bal’, Roth’s harps make their mark within seconds. His players all use early twentieth-century Érard instruments, which I think I’m right in saying have a more delicate sound than modern harps. Anxious to give these instruments their rightful place in the aural picture, Roth does something unusual. The photographs clearly show that the harpists sit, two to his left and two to his right, at the very front of the stage (where the first desks of the strings would normally be situated). By this means the harps cut through in just the right measure and without any artificial highlighting. I suspect that Gardiner’s harps – all six of them (!) - were more conventionally placed and they can be heard perfectly well. Roth judges the pacing of the waltz marvellously; it has elegance and, eventually, sweeping gaiety. I love the portamenti that his strings employ; the ORR perhaps use a fraction more for Gardiner. One important difference is that Gardiner includes the cornet part – to excellent effect – but Roth doesn’t, which is slightly surprising. In Roth’s flamboyant performance the waltz fairly whirls past you; it’s great.

The ‘Scène aux champs’ is a conspicuous success in both performances. Here, however, is a case where the engineering of the respective recordings makes a difference. At the start we hear a cor anglais in the foreground, representing a shepherd’s piping. An answer comes from the other side of the valley from an oboe. The effect is beautifully captured in the Roth performance. However, the greater distance on the Gardiner recording gives a real sense of space and the answering oboe, while clearly audible, does indeed sound to be coming from afar. As the movement unfolds the playing of Les Siècles is superb and though it may be invidious to single out any section, the contributions of the woodwind section are breath taking. Roth and his players conjure up an aural impression of the remote agrarian countryside in La France profonde. Amid all the refined, highly sensitive playing there’s also real passion for a while mid-movement. In the closing passage, as our shepherd (the cor anglais) sends his plaintive song across the valley once more the noise of distant thunder is heard on the timpani. Roth’s drums make a super effect here, though the engineering of the Gardiner disc means that his drums start and finish more distantly, which is highly effective.

In the ‘Marche au supplice’ – and indeed in the finale – the greater impact of Roth’s recorded sound really makes a difference, excellent though the Gardiner performance is. Roth’s march is powerful and strutting and it builds to a dread climax – you really sense that the tumbrils are rolling and there’s no chance of a reprieve. Just before the concluding drum rolls the clarinet’s premonition of Till Eulenspiegel cuts through like a knife.

And so to the Witches Sabbath. If you’ve already listened to Les Francs-Juges you’ll have some idea of what to expect. Berlioz’s music is graphic and gothic: what a febrile imagination the man had! It’s done full justice here by Roth and Les Siècles, whose period instruments really bring the music to life – sample the pungent woodwinds just before 2:00. I mentioned earlier that Roth had smething up his sleeve in terms of location authenticity. When the bells toll (2:52) the sound we hear is that of the bells of Berlioz’s home town, La Côte-Saint-André. It’s a great idea and the bells fit in really well. I don’t know where Gardiner’s bells came from: he has deeper, even more imposing bells. I like both effects, but Roth’s inclusion of home-town bells is a marvellous touch. In the Roth performance the arrival of the ‘Dies irae’ makes a telling impact and as that theme continues the double basses make an earth-shaking contribution at one point. This is all of a piece with the way every detail is projected strongly. The word vivid doesn’t really do justice to the performance, yet there’s no sensation of attention-seeking about this performance; we’re hearing what Berlioz wrote and what, surely, he would have rejoiced to hear. The atmosphere that is conjured up is palpable: you can readily imagine that goblins, sprites and all manner of scary things are abroad. Roth keeps everything on a tight rein: the music-making is very exciting but also disciplined.

This is a superb performance of Symphonie fantastique, one that can easily be ranked with the elite recordings of this work. I retain a huge admiration for Gardiner’s performance but I think Roth has the edge.

An excellent, vivid recording enhances the performance. It’s not clear from the booklet information if the orchestra’s usual practice of live recording was followed on this occasion but the photographs, clearly showing Roth and his team performing the symphony, suggests that this may well be a live recording.

So, to return to the question I asked myself at the start of this review: have Roth and Les Siècles achieved a hat trick of Berlioz excellence? The answer is an emphatic yes. There’s only one possible verdict on this disc. Like the symphony itself, it’s fantastique!

John Quinn

Previous review: Dan Morgan



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