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Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique / Slatkin, Lyon NO

Berlioz / Orch National De Lyon / Slatkin
Release Date: 09/25/2012 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8572886   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Hector Berlioz
Conductor:  Leonard Slatkin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lyon National Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 11 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BERLIOZ Symphonie fantastique. Corsaire Overture Leonard Slatkin, cond; Lyon Natl O NAXOS 8.572886 (70:21)

Berlioz’s most celebrated work has received considerable attention of late in both period- and modern-instrument recordings, most recently by Jos van Immerseel in the former category and Robin Ticciati in the latter. For different reasons, neither in my opinion, altered the landscape of the work’s legacy on record. Clearly the Symphonie fantastique Read more was not in need of yet another entry in the catalog, but as a long-time admirer of Leonard Slatkin, I specifically requested this new Naxos release for review, and glad I am that I did, for this may well be the most amazing performance and recording of the work I’ve ever heard.

What strikes me as special about Slatkin’s reading is the way in which he brings to the fore details of Berlioz’s orchestration that are clearly written in the score but which are usually felt rather than distinctly heard amidst the general proceedings. Let me cite a few examples. In measures 24–27 of the first movement, the basses play a series of pizzicato notes before rejoining the cellos, arco, at the octave in bar 28. In the current recording—to no small degree thanks to Naxos’s engineers—the precise pitches of those low pizzicato notes are discernible instead of sounding like indeterminate plunks. Elsewhere, too, throughout the movement, mostly in the winds, and particularly in the bassoons, one comes to realize that there are many more fragmentary references to the idée fixe woven into the score than is generally assumed, revealing the Symphonie fantastique to be far more than a wizard’s conjuring of orchestral effects. This is music by a very great composer.

The second movement “Un bal” reveals yet more felicitous details that often go unheard, this time in the harps. After their florid display at the beginning of the movement, their further presence is usually perceived to be limited to little accompanimental flourishes and asides. But rarely, if ever, does one hear with such clarity the complex counterpoint they engage in against the waltzing strings. Granted, the Lyon’s English horn and oboe don’t sing quite as plaintively to each other in the “Scène aux champs” as they do in Janowski’s recent Pittsburgh recording for PentaTone, nor is Slatkin’s “March to the Scaffold” the most tightly wound juggernaut on record, but he nonetheless emboldens the condemned with a defiant fatalism.

It’s in the last movement, though, that Slatkin takes an interpretive twist that may cause you to wonder if he’s either using a newly discovered edition of the piece, or if you’ve never actually heard Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique before. But you’ll have to wait until the very end for it, because Slatkin’s “deviation” from standard practice won’t be heard in the novel orchestral effects, which is not to suggest that his “Witches’ Sabbath” doesn’t do full justice to Berlioz’s kink. No, the surprise comes in the grand dinning melee, where, beginning in measure 512, three trumpets and the first ophicleide (here played by tuba) thrice hammer out the same descending series of eighth notes. At this point, the entire orchestra is writhing in an orgy of such Satanic debauchery that all one usually hears is a chthonian commotion. But what Slatkin does made me sit bolt upright in my chair and exclaim, “What’s this? Is this the standard score?” For he has insured that those thunderous Judgment Day blasts from on high are heard above all else, crushing and burying in a pile of rubble Hell’s kitchen. The score is the standard edition, but it’s what Slatkin chooses to do with it that makes this not just another Symphonie fantastique , but one that’s really quite special. And with some 150 available versions, why, after all, even bother unless you have something new and different to say? Slatkin does.

Speaking of alternate editions, however, Slatkin provides a bonus track featuring Berlioz’s revised scoring of “Un bal” to which the composer adds a cornet solo. If you prefer it to the original, which is the one almost universally performed, you can program your player to substitute it for the familiar version performed in the normal sequence on the disc. It’s also worth noting that Naxos has chosen to section the “Witches’ Sabbath” movement into four tracks, not that it matters if you’re listening to the piece straight through. The CD kicks off with an appropriately swashbuckling rendition of Berlioz’s Corsaire Overture . In recordings of diverse repertoire and under the batons of a number of conductors, the National Orchestra of Lyon has proven itself one of France’s top ensembles, and if this new release is an example of what we can expect from the orchestra under Slatkin, its new permanent leader, I can’t wait for more.

A final word on the recording: I was highly impressed by PentaTone’s recent SACD of the Symphonie fantastique with Janowski and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, but to paraphrase Schoenberg who is reputed to have said “There is still much good music to be written in C Major,” I would say that there is still much good life left in the standard audio CD, and that this Naxos release is an example of just how stunning a two-channel stereo recording can be. No matter how many Fantastique s you have in your collection, this is one you should not be without, and at Naxos’s budget price, I’d urge you to buy a dozen copies and save them for Christmas stocking stuffers for your friends.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 by Hector Berlioz
Conductor:  Leonard Slatkin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lyon National Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1830; France 
Date of Recording: 2011 
Le corsaire Overture, Op. 21 by Hector Berlioz
Conductor:  Leonard Slatkin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lyon National Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1844; France 
Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14: 2nd movement, Scene at the Ball by Hector Berlioz
Conductor:  Leonard Slatkin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lyon National Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1830; France 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  4 Customer Reviews )
 greatrecording January 26, 2017 By Jenene Stookesberry (Denver, CO) See All My Reviews "I love dealing with this website and the talked to on phone order process--it is refreshing not to have to deal with Amazon" Report Abuse
 Fine Recording -- Recommended June 26, 2013 By L. Wilborn (Richwood, TX) See All My Reviews "Recommended for interpretive performance, good sound quality, budget price. High quality product, low-cost risk for uninitiated." Report Abuse
 This CD is Fantastique! February 27, 2013 By Jean M. (Oakland, CA) See All My Reviews "Not only does this have Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, it opens with his Le Corsaire - Overture, followed by 3 other of his pieces, and ends with an alternate version of II - Un Bal. Valse. And, you can depend on Naxos to be of good value - good music at a good price." Report Abuse
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