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Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique; Varese: Ionisation / Mariss Jansons

Berlioz / Varese / Jansons
Release Date: 03/25/2014 
Label:  Br Klassik   Catalog #: 900121   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Hector BerliozEdgard Varèse
Conductor:  Mariss Jansons
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BERLIOZ Symphonie fantastique1. VARÈSE Ionisation2 Mariss Jansons, cond; Bavarian RSO BR 900121 (58:45) Live: Munich 13/7-8/2013 and 27/1-2/2010

This new recording of Berlioz’s iconic masterpiece has a good feel to it—certainly, a more “Berlioz-ish” feel than the interesting but Read more emotionally detached version by Robin Ticciati. Jansons achieves this feeling, particularly in the first movement, by means of varied accents on certain notes within the phrases, as well as by means of superbly chiseled dynamics that bring out details within the score without unduly italicizing the music. This gives the listener the feeling of, as the movement is titled, “Reveries and Passions.” Here, from the outset, one is aware of an awakening of the things that will eventually come to pass in the ensuing movements. This performance does not include the optional cornet solo in the second movement, but here, too, Jansons accents the music in a way (and I know this is hard to put into words) that just “sounds French.” You’ll know exactly what I mean when you hear it. I was also fascinated by the way in which Jansons held my interest throughout the “Scenes aux champs,” undoubtedly the most difficult movement of the five to pull off well—it’s so easy for this movement to come across as boring, particularly when it is not inflected.

One of the more interesting aspects of this performance is that Jansons does not slam into the “March to the Scaffold” as if it was the most dramatic event in the symphony (as so many conductors think), but, rather, almost ties it in to the previous movement by understating its opening measures. I would have liked a little more raw power when the brasses opened up, but he maintains his overall sense of balance here by not exaggerating. Jansons, rather, saves the all-out drama for the last few bars, which actually makes more sense—after all, that’s the “drop.” Jansons saves his best and most dramatic gestures for the “Witches’ Sabbath,” which has all the power and strange accents one could wish for. (Serpent Watch for those who actually care: That instrument is not used in this performance.) The particular way in which Jansons accents the timpani in the middle of the movement is absolutely wonderful, producing an effect I’ve heard in no other performance. All in all, this is exactly the kind of performance we critics yearn to hear but so seldom do, one in which a fresh approach is brought to an old warhorse, yet does not damage or mar the music.

Edgar Varèse’s strange work for percussion instruments and siren, Ionisation (1931), may seem a bit too different to follow Berlioz on a disc, but in its own way it is an ear-cleanser, particularly when one has been listening to a lot of Romantically-influenced music. The liner notes credit Varèse with having “discovered the mechanical siren as a musical instrument,” but George Antheil did that first in his 1924 Ballet Mécanique. Here, too, Jansons finds an unusual way of playing the work, giving it a jaunty, syncopated feeling, and it ends up being quite an enjoyable romp.

In its own way, this performance of the Berlioz is as good as the old mono recording I praised two issues back by Carl A. Bünte on Bella Musica, and the sonics are easily 20 times better here. Highly recommended.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley


This inventive programme on BK Klassik comprises Berlioz’s self portrait and Varèse relinquishing pitched sounds almost entirely. Written just over a century apart the two works by these French-born composers were in their day considered to be at the cutting edge. Today the Berlioz has endured as one of the best-loved works in the repertoire. Conversely the Varèse is rarely heard.

One of the first classical recordings on vinyl I ever bought was the Symphonie fantastique played by the LSO under André Previn. It was on CFP. Subtitled An Episode in the Life of an Artist this is by some distance Berlioz’s most popular score. The epitome of Romantic extravagance, this epic for large orchestra was composed in 1830 and revised in 1831/32 and again before being published in 1845. It was first performed at the Paris Conservatoire in December 1830 conducted by François-Antoine Habeneck.

Passionate about Shakespeare plays Berlioz became infatuated with the actress Harriet Smithson and was fired up to live out his fantasies in this symphony. In the manner of a Gothic novel Berlioz assigns descriptive titles to each of the five movements. These follow a programme of his obsessions including dreams, fits of temper and despair, tender moments of ecstasy and images of murder and execution.

A number of recordings have conductors who take an audaciously near-explosive approach as if to see who can create the most drama. This excess of power isn’t always translated into true drama. It can feel contrived and exaggerated, sometimes sounding ragged and far too loud. Avoiding this practice Jansons seems completely at home with this tour de force. Right from the opening Rêveries - Passions Jansons is judicious with his pacing and focuses mainly on creating vivid orchestral colour. I doubt I have ever heard Un bal - a Valse, played with such stylishness. This should not be taken to mean subdued. An Adagio the Scène aux champs establishes and sustains a sense of restlessness. The onset of distant thunder is conveyed splendidly; impressive sonics too. To fail to mention the elevated quality of the woodwind playing here would be remiss. Initially the famous Marche au supplice feels predominantly stealthy before quickly becoming bolder. Not as rip-roaring as some accounts Jansons provides excitement but not at the expense of orchestral polish. The Finale: Songe d'une nuit de sabbat sounding suitably devilish and Jansons adds a disarming vibrancy.

Edgard Varèse was highly innovative and explored the use of electronic music. Although born in France, Varèse spent the greater part of his composing career in the USA. His magnum opus, the heavily scored Amériques, is probably his best known score. It’s extremely rare to hear his music in concert, yet, I did hear a dazzling performance of Amériques (1918/21 rev. 1927) at the Musikfest Berlin 2012 as part of an American music concert by the Royal Concertgebouw under Mariss Jansons.

Ionisation requires a wide array of around forty or so percussion instruments that include sirens and ‘lion's roar’. These are almost all unpitched until close to the conclusion. This is very much an exercise in textures. The inscrutable yet dramatic interactions of the Bavarian Radio players suggest the sounds of a modern day city.

As I have come to expect from BR Klassik, these live performances are quite excellently recorded. Originally in German the two essays written by Jörg Handstein in their English translations are interesting and instructive. The Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, one of world’s greatest orchestras, never seems to rest on its laurels always looking for improvements and different repertoire to try. Under Jansons these players breathe new life into the Berlioz and do so with a deft touch that never feels weighty or overblown. One senses that the percussion greatly relish the Ionisation test which they pass with flying colours.

-- Michael Cookson, MusicWeb International

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Works on This Recording

Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 by Hector Berlioz
Conductor:  Mariss Jansons
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1830; France 
Ionisation by Edgard Varèse
Conductor:  Mariss Jansons
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1929-1931; USA 

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