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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Fantaisie sur la Tempête de Shakespeare (1831) [14:25]
Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 (1830) [55:33]
Toronto Mendelssohn Choir
Toronto Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. 2018, Roy Thompson Hall, Toronto, Canada
Sung text included

Andrew Davis is widely appreciated as a fine conductor of Berlioz. Even so, the challenge for a record company such as Chandos, when it decides to issue yet another version of the Symphonie Fantastique, is how to set the new issue apart from all the others. This performance of the symphony from Toronto is a very fine one indeed, but it is the coupling that might well encourage collectors to add this version to their shelves.

It is common knowledge that the Symphonie Fantastique was the direct result of the composer’s infatuation – the word is probably inadequate to describe Berlioz’s state of mind! – for the Irish Shakespearian actress, Harriet Smithson. Hugh Macdonald’s excellent booklet note reminds us of this in prose that is as sober as the events he describes are tempestuous. So we learn that, following successful early performances of the symphony, Berlioz travelled to Rome, leaving behind him his latest love, the pianist Camille Moke. Camille, however, became engaged to someone else while Berlioz was away, provoking in the composer a murderous plan in which both Camille and himself were to be victims. What Macdonald calls ‘a traumatic crisis’ saved Berlioz from this catastrophe, however, whereupon he composed a kind of sequel to the symphony, entitled Lélio, also known as ‘A Return to Life’. He incorporated into this work an ‘overture’ for orchestra and chorus based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest that he had composed shortly after the symphony. This is the work with which the current performance of the symphony is coupled, and which, sensibly, opens the disc.

The Italian text, written by Berlioz himself, is delivered by a chorus without basses, the texture giving a truly aerial feel enhanced by an important part for piano duet that tends to rest in the upper register. Lélio is generally felt to be inferior in quality to the Symphonie Fantastique, and it is certainly only rarely performed, particularly when compared to the earlier work. But listening blind there can be no doubt as to the composer, and the no-holds-barred way of dealing with the storm, the monstrous Caliban or the closing dénouement is both characteristic and highly entertaining. The Canadian forces under Davis’s assured direction make out the best possible case for it.

The performance of the Symphonie Fantastique is also highly successful. Pretty much everything that can be done with the work has already been done in previous performances, and this one could be characterised as middle of the road. But this is by no means meant as a criticism. Comparing this performance with others I find on my shelves, I’m conscious that Davis does not seek to bring out the more bizarre aspects of Berlioz’s scoring, as Bernstein did, for example, with the Orchestre National de France in 1976 (EMI/Warner). I’m thinking, in particular, of Bernstein’s way with the low brass in the ‘March to the Scaffold’, but since many of these are marked only mf it is easy to argue that Davis is more faithful to the score. You might feel that Bernstein brings a little more lilt to the waltz. Indeed, one can imagine the balletic gestures by which he will have achieved this with the French players. Nor does Davis bring out quite so much dynamic contrast in the faster movements, especially in the finale. But many find Bernstein’s way with this work hard driven and lacking in finesse. If you are of that mind you will certainly prefer Davis in Toronto, whose reading contrives to be both dramatic and refined.

Any consideration of performances of this work cannot ignore the other Davis, the late Sir Colin. Listening again to his later, live performance with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO Live) I find I am somewhat disappointed by a reading that seems underpowered. I’m aware in this that I’m influenced again by the conductor’s appearance on the podium, a kind of patrician stance that Davis adopted toward the end of his life. Mine is a minority view, but even his earlier performance with the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips), which I find superior, seems less taut, less on the ball than the performance under review here.

I can’t imagine any listener being disappointed by this performance of the Symphonie Fantastique. You might have read a review elsewhere that draws attention to a couple of slips from the orchestra. You will need very sharp ears to hear them and even sharper ones – plus a low degree of tolerance – for them to bother you. Indeed, the orchestral playing is brilliant throughout, and the whole programme is recorded to the exalted standards of the house. With an excellent booklet that includes the sung texts and such an interesting coupling this disc can be safely recommended.

William Hedley

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