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Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, Etc / Norrington, Et Al

Release Date: 05/10/2005 
Label:  Swr Music   Catalog #: 93103   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Hector Berlioz
Conductor:  Roger Norrington
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

The rag-tag pickup ensemble optimistically named The London Classical Players catapulted Roger Norrington to fame, aided in no small degree by the pandering lip-service of the British musical press and the fondness of jaded critics for anything "new". Their recording of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, anemic in tone and bereft of ideas other than "if we play it this way it must be what Berlioz wanted," caused quite a stir as one of the first "period-instrument" releases to advance the cause beyond the Baroque and Classical repertoire. Norrington's flavorless performance (for EMI) was quickly superceded by John Eliot Gardiner's similarly cold but
Read more better played version, and Mark Minkowski has recently entered the lists as well.

Now Norrington has returned to the place of his former conquest, and as with his recent Beethoven symphonies, the presence of a world class orchestra combined with the wisdom that comes with experience conspires to produce a superb Symphonie fantastique--not perhaps the most frenetic or hysterical rendition around (but then, that's why God created Charles Munch), but a performance that combines passion with spontaneity and incredible ensemble clarity. In the end it's hard not to concur with Norrington's suggestion in the booklet notes that this truly does offer a particularly happy melding of both the "historical performance" and "modern orchestra" camps.

This new version's qualities begin at the beginning, with a beautifully shaped first-movement introduction adorned by remarkably agile violins at their rapid entrance. Indeed, the entire first movement enjoys such a feeling of forward movement that even the exposition-repeat sounds inevitable. In The Ball Norrington lets us hear every note of the harps, and he whips the movement up to an idiomatically feverish frenzy at the end. The Scene in the Country lasts just 16 minutes, which is very fast by today's standards (Munch, you may recall, takes less than 15), and it strikes me as exactly right. This time around, Norrington's willingness to "interpret" reveals itself at the end, in "distant thunder" that comes pretty close to annihilating the concert hall and everyone in it. I didn't mind, and you won't either.

Norrington paces the March to the Scaffold very slowly, but with such excellent balances and rhythmic precision that it only enhances the music's grotesquerie. He's also more than willing to let the percussion section have its say in the movement's latter stages, with the bass drum in particular captured with stunning fidelity. The performance thus projects exactly the quality of panache that the earlier version so singularly lacked. Norrington's finale is similarly moderate in tempo (exactly the same timing as Markevitch, in fact), but woodwinds play spectacularly at the opening, the Dies Irae episode has the necessary gruesomeness, and Norrington really turns up the heat to bring the work to a thrilling close.

I wish the applause at the end had been eliminated, but you certainly can understand the audience's enthusiasm. The overture to Les Francs-juges, too rarely performed and equally well done, makes a great curtain-raiser, and the SWR engineers have outdone themselves in terms of depth and realism. Certainly this is the finest version so far to give us "authenticized" Berlioz, and it's also very heartening to be able to salute Roger Norrington in his 70th year as an interpreter of real stature.
--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com Read less

Works on This Recording

Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 by Hector Berlioz
Conductor:  Roger Norrington
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1830; France 
Venue:  Beethoven Hall, Stuttgart, Germany 
Length: 14 Minutes 46 Secs. 
Notes: Beethoven Hall, Stuttgart, Germany (07/02/2003 - 07/04/2003) 
Les francs-juges, Op. 3: Overture by Hector Berlioz
Conductor:  Roger Norrington
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1826; France 
Venue:  Live  Beethoven Hall, Stuttgart, Germany 
Length: 12 Minutes 32 Secs. 
Notes: Beethoven Hall, Stuttgart, Germany (07/02/2003 - 07/04/2003) 

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