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Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique / Salonen, Philharmonia

Berlioz / Beethoven / Pao / Salonen
Release Date: 05/25/2010 
Label:  Signum Classics   Catalog #: 193   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Hector BerliozLudwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Esa-Pekka Salonen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Philharmonia Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BERLIOZ Symphonie fantastique. BEETHOVEN Leonore Overture No. 2 Esa-Pekka Salonen (cond); Philharmonia O SIGNUM 193 (67:07) Live: Royal Festival Hall 9/28/2008

With 150 current listings, one wouldn’t think that Berlioz’s most famous work needed another recording; yet, in a strange way, the Symphonie Fantastique has fallen victim to a fate similar to that of a Read more number of music’s sonic blockbusters, such as Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra and An Alpine Symphony , Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture , and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring , to name just a few. Appreciation of the musical value intrinsic in such works can be diluted when they are reduced to fare for testing the limits of an audiophile’s state-of-the-art electronics. Whether real canons and carillon are used in the Tchaikovsky, for example, should not be the determining factor in judging the quality of a performance, any more than should the determining factor in judging a performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique be whether or not an actual ophicleide and serpent are employed in the orchestra.

I began to muse on this having heard a recent Fantastique on period instruments with Jos van Immerseel leading the Anima Eterna Orchestra on Zig-Zag Territoires. That recording, reviewed by both Phillip Scott and Ronald E. Grames in Fanfare 33:6, had the period-instrument camp abuzz when it was first released. Scott and Grames, however, were both more circumspect in their assessments, finding much to admire, but also offering some cautionary criticism.

Some of Scott’s observations apply to the interpretive aspects of the performance and the emotional responses elicited: “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.” Grames, too, acknowledges interpretive weaknesses, concurring that Immerseel’s “Scène aux champs,” in particular, is disappointing. But what I find more interesting in both Scott’s and Grame’s reviews are comments addressing pragmatic decisions that involve technical execution as opposed to musical interpretation of Berlioz’s score.

If one goes so far as to employ the ophicleide (a type of 19th-century, conical-bored, brass-keyed bugle which was eventually eclipsed by the tuba and euphonium), then why not a serpent (a bass-wind instrument descended from the cornett family), which Berlioz also calls for in the score, but which Immerseel shuns? But even more disturbing, as noted by both Scott and Grames, is Immerseel’s substitution of two period pianos playing in low octaves in place of Berlioz’s specifically indicated bells. The conductor’s rationalization is that the composer approved the practice on a couple of occasions when the piece was performed in Germany. No doubt, the German orchestras Berlioz encountered on his visits to Dresden and Cologne were not equipped with bells, as either they could not afford them or no music they had previously played required them. But with all its glitz and glitter, you can be sure that the Paris Conservatory had at its disposal the full battery of instruments the composer required when his Symphonie Fantastique was premiered there in 1830 under the baton of François-Antoine Habeneck.

Personally, I find it somewhat disingenuous to pretend that just because a recording uses period instruments the performance must therefore be historically authentic. I say this because when it comes to Berlioz’s Fantastique , I will gladly take any number of great performances on modern instruments over those on period instruments when the modern ones are by great orchestras and conductors that penetrate the heart and soul of this music—Mitropoulos/New York Philharmonic (1957), Munch/Boston (1962), Bernstein/New York Philharmonic (1963), Davis/LSO (1963), Davis/Concertgebouw (1974), Solti/Chicago (1992), Boulez/Cleveland (1996), and once again Davis/LSO (2000).

Oddly perhaps, between the last-named Davis and this new Salonen, there has been a bit of a hiatus in modern-instrument Fantastiques . A 2008 Rattle performance with the Berlin Philharmonic, another 2008 recording from Gustavo Dudamel, Salonen’s successor at the Los Angeles Philharmonic (available only as a download), and a just released PentaTone SACD with Marek Janowski and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra are the only three I’m aware of. But period-instrument performances from Norrington, Gardiner, and the aforementioned Immerseel have filled the gap.

I’ve come this far without saying a word about Esa-Pekka Salonen’s performance with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Interpretively, I find it very satisfying. Details, especially in the lower-registered instruments—cellos, bassoons, and double basses—emerge with great clarity, allowing important counterpoints often obscured by the mid- and higher-ranged instruments to be heard to stunning effect. This contributes to one’s appreciation of the subtleties and nuances of the score and to how skillful a composer and orchestrator Berlioz really was. Salonen encourages the cornets to go all out in “Un bal,” and the dialoging between the English horn and oboe in the “Scène aux champs,” the work’s heart, is as plaintively played as I’ve heard it. Repeats in the first and fourth movements are skipped, which is a bit of a disappointment, especially in the “March to the Scaffold,” which gains significantly from the repeat in building tension toward the head-chopping dénouement, and is cut short without it—only 4:38 in this performance.

The loss is mostly compensated for in the last movement, where Salonen stirs up quite a witch’s brew. The E?-clarinet cackles and crackles like the hag it’s meant to portray in the episode that transforms the idée fixe into a grinning, taunting harpy. Real bells of the tubular type, aka chimes, ominously announce the Dies irae . Infernal hammerings accompany the malevolent saturnalia as the Dies irae combines with the idée fixe and the witches’ dance in a mounting orgy. And finally, the disembodied sound of the violins playing col legno , like the clattering of so many pairs of skeletons’ teeth, unlocks Pandora’s Box, from which, in the words of Jonathan Swift, “A sudden universal Crew of humane Evils upwards flew.”

The live audience, dead silent until the end, erupts in a wild and well-deserved ovation. This is a superb Fantastique , and the recording captures it in all of its grotesque glory. Other than the absence of the repeats, I have no reason not to extend a strong recommendation. I would, however, urge a bit of patience before purchasing this release, only because I suspect that the brand new, not yet heard, and not yet reviewed Fantastique with Janowski and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on a PentaTone SACD is apt to give Salonen and the Philharmonia a run for their money.

It seems a bit odd to have tacked Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 2 onto the end of the disc. As it was part of the same live concert, I would have expected it to come at the beginning. Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is not really a work that anything follows on a program. Be that as it may, this is as fine a performance of the Beethoven as any.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 by Hector Berlioz
Conductor:  Esa-Pekka Salonen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Philharmonia Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1830; France 
Leonore Overture no 2 in C major, Op. 72 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor:  Esa-Pekka Salonen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Philharmonia Orchestra
Period: Classical 
Written: 1805; Vienna, Austria 

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