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Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, Etc / Simon Rattle, Susan Graham, Berlin PO

Release Date: 01/13/2009 
Label:  Warner Classics   Catalog #: 16224   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Hector Berlioz
Performer:  Susan Graham
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BERLIOZ Symphonie fantastique. La mort de Cléopâtre 1 Simon Rattle, cond; Susan Graham (mez); 1 Berlin PO EMI 16224 (75:59 Text and Translation)

For many gramophiles, Sir Colin Davis has essentially owned the Symphonie fantastique for the past 40 years or so. All four of his recordings—with the LSO, Concertgebouw (reissued Read more recently by PentaTone in four-channel SACD), and VPO on Philips, and with the LSO again on LSO Live—are still available. I use the (original) Concertgebouw recording as a benchmark; as an alternative, I turn to Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s authoritative recreation of the 1830 premiere, also on Philips. Any new recording that can hold its own with these performances earns my recommendation.

The subdued opening of the Symphonie strikes a balance between sighing lament and defiance, the more vigorous episodes contrasting with the languor of the others. The idée fixe (and its repeat) is forthright and assertive. Like Davis, Rattle approaches this score as more than just an orchestral showpiece; his is a performance of sensitivity as well as power. The sound is detailed, spacious, and dominated by a plush midrange. Beginning in near-silence, the underlying pulse for “Un bal” is strong, while the lush Berlin strings propel the themes. Once again, there is nuance as well as energy in this dance music—the melancholy flute and, later, clarinet of the idée fixe are a marked contrast to the dancers swirling around them. The optional cornet is employed, but it is so well integrated into the orchestra that its contribution is negligible (Gardiner’s is far more effective). The oboe in the third movement is a distant echo from its off-stage perspective, an effect brilliantly achieved. Pacing in this movement is close to Gardiner’s, proof that the languid character of the music doesn’t require an overly deliberate tempo. The swelling of emotion at the appearance of the idée fixe is very effectively communicated, and the ominous timpani provide a hint of menace amid the bucolic scenery. A heavy, slow-paced tumbrel with our hero now makes its laborious way, accompanied by hectoring bassoons and baying brass; the subsequent march is almost understated in its rectitude. The overwhelming feeling is of crushing weight, in direct contrast to the airy lightness of the ball. The hero is dispatched with solemnity rather than triumph—a refreshingly different approach. The finale opens in a similarly heavy fashion, but the strings are superb in their varied deployment. In contrast to the march of the previous movement, this one, led by the manically gleeful E? clarinet, is all tipsy momentum. The bells of the “Dies irae” are coldly arresting; there is dour solemnity in the brass while strings and winds mock. Febrile merriment infuses the subsequent music, culminating in as daemonic a procession as one could wish for.

The relatively rare Cléopâtre showcases Graham’s idiomatic and striking characterization; the music foreshadows much that formed the methodology of the dramatic symphonies to come. This performance evokes pleasurable memories of Graham’s Marguerite in Nagano’s La damnation de Faust, one of the best on disc.

There is a Philips pairing of these works conducted by Valery Gergiev that I haven’t heard (see Michael Ullman’s review in 27:4); despite the Davis hegemony, Rattle has produced performances of real substance, and I can happily recommend this disc.

FANFARE: Christopher Abbot
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Works on This Recording

Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 by Hector Berlioz
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1830; France 
Length: 55 Minutes 39 Secs. 
La mort de Cléopâtre: Scene Lyrique by Hector Berlioz
Performer:  Susan Graham (Mezzo Soprano)
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1829; France 
Length: 10 Minutes 11 Secs. 
La mort de Cléopâtre: Méditation by Hector Berlioz
Performer:  Susan Graham (Mezzo Soprano)
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1829; France 
Length: 10 Minutes 19 Secs. 

Sound Samples

Symphonie fantastique Op. 14: I. Rêveries - Passions
Symphonie fantastique Op. 14: II. Un bal
Symphonie fantastique Op. 14: III. Scène aux champs
Symphonie fantastique Op. 14: IV. Marche au supplice
Symphonie fantastique Op. 14: V. Songe d'une nuit du Sabbat
La mort de Cléopâtre: Scène lyrique
La mort de Cléopâtre: Méditation

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