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Berlioz: Symphonie Fantasique / Immerseel, Anima Eterna

Berlioz / Anima Eterna / Immerseel
Release Date: 02/09/2010 
Label:  Zig Zag   Catalog #: 100101  
Composer:  Hector Berlioz
Conductor:  Jos van Immerseel
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Anima Eterna Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BERLIOZ Symphonie Fantastique. Overture: Le Carnaval Romain Jos van Immerseel, cond; Anima Eterna O ZIG-ZAG TERRITOIRES ZZT 100101 (64: 54)

Cards on the table: This is a fascinating disc and anyone interested in the Symphonie Fantastique should make an attempt to hear it.

Anima Eterna is an orchestra of international musicians based in Bruges. Under its Read more founding conductor, Jos van Immerseel, it attempts to re-create authentic performances of 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century music using period instruments and historically informed performance practices. It has made several recordings for the Zig-Zag label; a recent set of the complete Beethoven symphonies has garnered excellent reviews, and releases of music by (among others) Rimsky-Korsakov, Johann Strauss II, and Ravel are widely admired. In fact, I admire the orchestra myself. At the very least, this band enables you to listen to the music with fresh ears—although that does not mean all recorded competition is rendered null and void.

Berlioz is the obvious candidate for its approach because his music was so revolutionary. Here it seems the very epitome of modernism. The unpredictable contours of his melodic lines, his highly individual harmonic progressions, and above all the novel textures of his orchestral writing must have struck contemporary listeners as bizarre. Certainly no other symphony approached the Fantastique for pure color or graphic pictorial elements until the arrival of Mahler some 40 years later.

Berlioz composed the work in 1830–31 but performed and revised it frequently before the final version was published in 1845; in hindsight, this makes it a tricky piece to pin down in terms of an authentic period performance. The composer himself conducted orchestras of varying sizes in the work, and (sensibly) made changes for pragmatic reasons from time to time. However, van Immerseel has done a lot of research, as is his wont, and sets out his aims and conclusions succinctly in the notes accompanying this release.

The first thing one notices is the clinical clarity of the orchestral texture, helped by a moderately sized string section and in particular violins played without vibrato so that they don’t dominate. Much detail is thereby revealed, a notable instance being the harps and woodwind parts in “Un Bal.”

Van Immerseel’s recording is not the first to bring a historically informed approach to this work; Roger Norrington recorded it in 1989 and John Eliot Gardiner followed in 1993, both conducting period bands. In terms of intonation and sheer beauty of sound, I would place Anima Eterna far ahead of both those other ensembles. Some more recent recordings have also gone for care and clarity, among them Marc Minkowsi and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra on a DG disc recently reissued by Brilliant Classics and reviewed by Adrian Corleonis in Fanfare 33:4. (He called the performance “peculiar”; I have always rather enjoyed it.)

Until Colin Davis proved them wrong, most English critics espoused Berlioz as a kind of manic amateur—and in a slapdash or over-excited performance, with not enough care taken over the inner parts, his music can easily sound messy. A recording like this new one proves once and for all that Berlioz was a superb composer for the orchestra: daring, imaginative, and skilled, with a thorough knowledge of instruments. (He wrote an important treatise on orchestration.) But of course he was also a great Romantic, so a lot of extramusical baggage comes with the Fantastique . The potential downside of any conductor wishing to put the music under a microscope is that all-important atmosphere and dramatic tension may be sacrificed in the process. Van Immerseel does not entirely avoid this; his “Marche au supplice” lacks menace until the very final bars, and more damagingly, his “Scène aux champs” fails to speak of the protagonist’s sense of loneliness and desolation.

Following the letter of the score, van Immerseel does not whip up excitement by accelerating—the coda of “Un Bal” does not become a blurred whirlwind as it does under, say, Bernstein—and he never pulls tempi around in the style of Munch. His speeds tend to sit on the sedate side throughout. He does score in the final movement, however, through sheer heft; it is strikingly played and the composer’s orchestral effects tell more scarily than ever.

Repeats are employed in the first and fourth movements, and the extra parts for cornet are used in the second movement, better integrated into the texture than is usually the case. However, a controversial choice has been made in the tolling bell section of “Songe d’une nuit du Sabbat.” Van Immerseel has elected to have the bell motif played in triple octaves on a piano (with the sustaining pedal depressed throughout), rather than by actual bells or orchestral tubular bells. I have never heard this done in any other recording (and I own 11 on CD alone). He justifies it in his notes by referring to a couple of documented occasions in Germany when Berlioz approved the practice. I am no musicologist, but common sense and the choices made by every conductor of note since recordings began would suggest that the piano is something of a compromise. For all that, the instrument makes a suspenseful impact in this recording.

Sedate tempos weaken the Roman Carnival Overture as well. Again it is a joy to hear the clarity of texture and precision of ensemble in the concluding carnival section, but it could be more fun and a lot lighter on its feet. Perhaps we should think of this version as the Belgian Carnival Overture.

Nitpicking aside, I stand by my opening paragraph. No one recording of Berlioz’s symphonic masterpiece gets everything right, because there are so many disparate elements to hold in balance. For the home listener, choice may depend on mood: You may fancy Munch’s dynamic storytelling one day, Beecham’s Gallic sophistication the next. There are plenty of excellent mainstream versions available, such as that of Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra on Telarc. Anima Eterna attempts something else: to transport you back to the Paris of the mid 1800s to hear the piece as if for the first time. It is a worthwhile and to my mind unmissable experience.

FANFARE: Phillip Scott

Another Symphonie Fantastique recording, but one which genuinely tries to make a difference, and largely succeeds.

Conductor Jos Van Immerseel and his Bruges-based orchestra take as their starting point Berlioz’s innovations and experiments in instrumentation and orchestration. Even now it is possible to appreciate the shock tactics which Berlioz employed in his weirdly autobiographical symphony. Apart from the five-movement programmatic content, there are the two harps, valve cornets, double timpani, divided double-basses, ophicleides and col legno violins, not to mention the bells - more of that later..

Accordingly, this recording emphasises the unusual sonorities employed in the symphony within a context of ‘authentic’ performance. This leads to a rather straight reading, without many emotional surprises. But with so many personalised recordings on the market, this is not necessarily a bad thing. The main problem is the slowing down of the tempo in key moments. During the first movement (Rêveries/Passions), for example, there is a sudden slackening of speed during the ecstatic central section. The same thing happens during the fourth movement (Marche au Supplice), when the chaotic march to the guillotine threatens to slow to a bit of a plod.

But there are many highlights, too. Listen out for the brisk ball movement (Un Bal), with the tremulous harps rightly placed out in front. Then again, there’s the exquisitely played third movement (Scène aux Champs), which sounds like an extended pastoral symphonic poem. Here, the tempo slow-down helps to expose Berlioz’s layers of orchestration. Make your own mind up about the finale (Songe d’une Nuit du Sabbat). Here, Van Immerseel has opted to omit the bells and replace them with two pianos playing in unison, octaves apart. There is nothing odd about this – in the score Berlioz himself suggests the replacement of bells with two or more pianos if suitable bells are unavailable. There is certainly something ominous about the dead-sounding pianos playing alongside the Dies irae ophicleides. The rest of the movement is a diabolic orgy of sound – scary, but great fun.

As a filler, the recording includes a brilliant performance of the Carnaval Romain overture. Balanced and well-rounded, it serves as a good introduction to themes from Berlioz’s seldom-staged opera Benvenuto Cellini.

-- John-Pierre Joyce, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 by Hector Berlioz
Conductor:  Jos van Immerseel
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Anima Eterna Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1830; France 
Le carnaval romain Overture, Op. 9 by Hector Berlioz
Conductor:  Jos van Immerseel
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Anima Eterna Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1843-1844; France 

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