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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) [12:12]
Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
rec. 2019, Maison de l’Orchestre national d’Île-de-France, Alfortville
Reviewed as 24/44.1 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902644 [65:45]

François-Xavier Roth is fast becoming Harmonia Mundi’s poster boy, what with his acclaimed Mahler, Ravel and, in this 150th anniversary year, Berlioz. John Quinn, who’s been following the latter series, was mightily impressed with the Frenchman’s coupling of Harold en Italie and Les Nuits d’été, which was made a MusicWeb Recording of the Month in February 2019. As if that weren’t enough, Roth’s video of La damnation de Faust received the same accolade a few months later. All of Roth’s Harmonia Mundi recordings - with the exception of his Gürzenich Mahler 3 and Mahler 5 - are with Les Siècles, the period-instrument ensemble he founded in 2003. But it was their revelatory account of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps at the BBC Proms in 2013 - and the subsequent recording for Actes Sud - that marked their big break.

The Symphonie fantastique, a musical landmark, is no stranger to HIPP and HIPP-inspired performances. The recordings that spring to mind are: Sir John Eliot Gardiner, with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (Philips); Sir Roger Norrington in London and Stuttgart (EMI-Warner, SWR Music); Anima Eterna, directed by Jos van Immerseel (Zig-Zag Territoires); and, more recently, Robin Ticciati and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Linn). The latter is a perfect example of how the quest for authenticity - with its emphasis on lean textures, forensic phrasing and crisply articulated rhythms - can be applied to performances on modern instruments, often with illuminating results. (Indeed, I was so enchanted by the Ticciati disc I made it one of my Recordings of the Year in 2012.) However, those who prefer their Berlioz played sur instruments d’époque need look no further the Immerseel and, in their 2010 recording for Actes Sud, Roth and Les Siècles. I’ve been listening to both in preparation for this review, which turned out to be most revealing. (More on that later.)

But first, a brief diversion. I got to know the Symphonie fantastique via Sir Colin Davis’s classic 1974 recording with the Concertgebouw (Philips). A few years back I reviewed a high-res remaster from Linn/Universal, and was astounded - once again - by both the passion of the performance and the superb engineering. (Alas, that particular download doesn’t seem to be available anymore.) Really, if you like traditional, ‘full-fat’ Berlioz, then this is the version to have. That said, there’s strong competition from Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony, recorded live in 2010 (CSO Resound). Not only does that exhibit all the dramatic and structural virtues of Sir Colin’s reading, it also has the advantage of being paired with an unmissable account of Op. 14’s companion piece, Lélio, ou le retour à la vie. Fabulous playing and state-of-the-art sound makes this album very desirable indeed. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend Daniele Gatti’s underwhelming Symphonie fantastique, recorded with the Concertgebouw in 2016 (RCO Live). Nor can I endorse the 2018 Toronto one from that other Davis, Sir Andrew, on Chandos. (Brian Wilson certainly liked it a little more than I did.) Given AD’s quite splendid Berlioz overtures with the Bergen Phil, I had high hopes for this recording. To be fair, that perception may have more to do with the sub-par playing of his Canadian orchestra.

The USP of Roth’s Op. 14 remake is that it’s based on Berlioz’s autograph score. It’s more of a symbolic gesture - what the liner-notes call a ‘salute’ to the composer - so don’t expect any startling changes. One of the things that struck me about the latest account of ‘Rêveries’ is that although Les Siècles played well enough in 2010, they’re a much more polished and assertive band this time around. Not only that, the Harmonia Mundi recording is far more couth and airy, which allows for plenty of ear-pricking detail and vivid colours. The balances are better too, the Actes Sud recording - with its murky bass - much too upfront for my taste. The real joy of this new opener, though, is Roth’s improved control of pulse and dynamics, and how unerringly he builds the movement’s dramatic arch. (His taut timps are a real treat, too.) As for Immerseel his players may sound bracingly authentic, but the narrative isn’t quite so convincing.

That said, Immerseel’s prominent harp sparkles in the ball scene, underpinning and enlivening the waltz rhythms in the most delightful way. But what Roth offers here is a pleasing pliancy and elegance that you won’t find in his earlier account or, for that matter, in Immerseel’s. And how marvellous it is to hear Les Siècles’ woodwinds play with such precision and character. Again, Roth Mk 2 is a clear first choice in the evanescent middle movement, which has a purity of mood and line that’s utterly right for this sylvan setting. Indeed, I found myself harking back to Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ symphony here, such is the unaffected loveliness of this performance. As for the approaching storm, it’s all the more ominous for being so proportionately done. (Immerseel is very elemental at this point, but then he’s pretty febrile throughout.)

And what of the symphony’s big showpieces, the march to the scaffold and the witches’ sabbath? Well, the adrenalin flows more freely and the colours are more garish in the Immerseel, but in both his recordings Roth remains remarkably controlled, Berlioz’s instrumental strands easily discerned at every lurch and leer of the execution scene. Certainly, the reappearance of the idée fixe just before the blade falls seems especially cruel for being so wistfully done. (Roth’s 2010 performance is by no means a bad one, but musically and sonically it’s comprehensively outclassed by this extraordinary remake.) In a pleasing touch, the church bells in the new finale are from Berlioz’s hometown, La Côte-Saint-André. Immerseel goes for the (optional) pianos instead, which some listeners may baulk at. That said, Immerseel really turns up the wick at the end, and the results are spectacular. Roth, whose guiding philosophy seems to be less is more, achieves a different kind of thrill with his steady, implacable approach. The filler is a hefty and exciting account of the overture to Berlioz’s unfinished opera, Les Francs-Juges. (Immerseel offers a fizzing Carnival romain; Roth Mk. 1 is sans ouverture.) An altogether splendid sign-off to an altogether splendid release.

Now here’s the thing. When I listened to Roth Mk 2 for the first time I wasn’t sure what to make of it. However, returning to it in the context of Immerseel and Roth’s earlier recording, I soon realised what a revitalising performance this newcomer is. In many ways it reminds me of Roth’s Titan - sure to be one of my picks of the year - which also brings with it a wonderful sense of renewal and rediscovery. The joyful music-making and the first-rate recording - the ingénieur du son is Alix Ewald - certainly helps. Good liner-notes and essay, too.

C’est magnifique; a glowing tribute to composer and conductor alike.

Dan Morgan

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