Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, Etc / Martinon, Radio France

Release Date: 8/15/2007
Catalog Number: EMI 62739
Composer: Hector Berlioz
Conductor: Jean Martinon
Number of Discs: 2

Physical Format:

Low Stock
Notes and Editorial Reviews
Worth acquiring for Lélio alone.

It’s astonishing that the daring Symphonie fantastique was written just three years after Beethoven’s death. Nothing quite prepares one for its heady mix of unrequited love, opium-fuelled daydreams, madness and death. Not surprisingly it’s a perennial favourite in the concert hall and on disc. There are more than 130 versions listed in the catalogue today.

French maestro Jean Martinon conducted a wide range of music, from Berlioz to Varèse via Debussy, Ravel and Nielsen. That said he is probably best known for his recordings of 19th-century French repertoire. Indeed, I first encountered him on a boxed set of Saint-Saëns symphonies back in the 1970s. I vaguely remember hearing this Symphonie fantastique on LP as well; it didn’t make much of an impression then, so I was curious to see if I felt any differently about it now.

Martinon is up against some stiff competition, notably from the Concertgebouw under Sir Colin Davis (Philips 475 7557), Bernstein (also with the ORTF) and Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (Philips 434 40220). Sir Roger Norrington’s pioneering LCP performance, using period instruments and playing techniques, is also worth hearing (Virgin 3632862).

First impressions of Martinon’s Symphonie fantastique are not at all promising. Apart from a fairly brisk – I nearly wrote brusque – approach to Réveries what really undermines this performance is the shrill, fatiguing transfer. Admittedly it’s an AAD recording but I don’t remember it sounding quite so fierce. There’s very little passion here and none of the weight and colour of the Davis version. The French orchestra has a distinctively Gallic sound of course but it comes across as undernourished here.

Davis and Martinon’s first-movement timings aren’t that different – 15:16 and 15:08 respectively – yet it’s Davis who mines the rich orchestral seam most thoroughly. That’s certainly true of his reading of Un bal, where giddiness and delirium are never far away. The Concertgebouw phrase the waltz rhythms superbly and the recording has remarkable warmth and depth. By contrast the ORTF strings are steely, although the harp and Jacques Lecointre’s bracing cornet playing ameliorate matters a little. Once again timings aren’t that different but Davis directs a much more passionate, red-blooded performance, making Martinon sound positively anaemic by comparison.

Switching between Martinon and Davis in Scène aux champs pretty much confirms my earlier reservations. Martinon’s pastoral idyll isn’t quite so lovingly painted, nor does it have the cumulative tension of Davis’s account. The latter finds a wonderful sense of innocence in the shepherds’ duet and generates considerable menace with the drum-rolls that follow. In both instances the Concertgebouw outplay the French band and the warmer Philips recording is far more atmospheric.

Marche au supplice is a visceral piece of writing and is probably the best-known ‘bleeding chunk’ from this symphony. I have particularly fond memories of an early Decca digital LP from Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic – now available on special order from ArkivMusic – which has enormous impact at this point.

Predictably the weight and breadth of the Philips recording adds to the thrill of this music, the eruptive brass and pulsing timps superbly caught. Unfortunately the French brass are much too brightly lit and the lightweight percussion simply emphasises the poor balance. Again Martinon misses the sheer grotesquerie of this lurching death march, elements Davis projects so vividly. The Dutch band play with splendid attack, conveying a real sense of inevitability. The percussion are particularly thrilling, the brass suitably malevolent. By contrast Martinon sounds too headlong to be completely satisfying.

Songe d’une nuit de Sabbat is another showpiece, those strange plucked strings, tolling bells, Dies irae quotations and other diabolical effects guaranteed to raise a hair or two. But more than this it needs a bravura performance to bring it off. Davis certainly manages that, yet retains a remarkable degree of focus and control throughout. Unfortunately Martinon isn’t in the same league and it really shows here; he is let down by the shrill recording and a lack of dramatic flair. Also, the French bells are rather more clangourous than usual and the bass drum makes very little impact. Altogether a disappointing climax to a marvellous work.

If you’re looking for a reading of this symphony that does justice to the composer’s extraordinary orchestral and dramatic skills this isn’t it. Davis is still sans pareil in this work, although his later recording for LSO Live lacks the proselytizing, fire-in-the-belly quality of his earlier performances.

Some listeners may be tempted by the coupling: Berlioz’s rather odd ‘monodrame lyrique’ Lélio, ou la retour à la vie. Written in 1831, it is the composer’s response to yet another disastrous infatuation, this time with Camille Moke. Considered a sequel to the symphony, Lélio chronicles the artist’s emergence from the darkness of despair into the sunlight of renewed optimism. While it may not be as musically cogent as the symphony it does have some inspirational moments.

Lélio consists of six sections linked by spoken text. Curiously, Davis dispenses with the narration, which tends to emphasise the work’s episodic nature and undermines the drama of the piece. Martinon’s narrator Lélio is played by Jean Topart, who delivers his lines with great conviction; arguably it’s all a little too emotive but it’s as idiomatic as you’re likely to hear. Davis’s tenor (Horatio) is José Carreras, who really struggles with the vocal demands of Le pêcheur. Ballade (The Fisherman’s Ballad). Martinon’s tenor Charles Burles negotiates the high notes with comparative ease and the ORTF chorus sing with great fervour. That said the recording is still too fierce for comfort and there’s a hint of congestion in the choral climaxes.

Although he is better recorded Davis sounds rather ponderous in this work, leaving Martinon to discover the many nuggets in this strange score. For instance in Chant de bonheur – Souvenirs (Song of Happiness – Memories) Berlioz delivers music of real tenderness and beauty. The ORTF band – especially harpist Marie-Claire Jamet – play eloquently, Nicolai Gedda wonderfully warm and passionate as the imaginary Lélio. Thomas Allen does well enough for Davis but the orchestral playing is a little too earthbound at times.

The French choral singing is crisp and clear in La harpe éolienne (The Aeolian Harp) but once again it’s too brightly lit. Berlioz whips up quite a storm in Fantaisie sur la ‘Tempête’ de Shakespeare (Fantasy on Shakespeare's ‘The Tempest’). Here he combines his two great passions, Italy – the chorus sing in Italian – and Shakespeare. And despite the disappointing transfer Martinon’s performance is undeniably powerful, brimming with optimism and energy.

If you must have this pairing there is an elusive RCA recording from Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. And if it’s Lélio you’re after there is a recent Chandos release from Thomas Dausgaard (see Michael Cookson’s review). But even if Martinon’s Symphonie fantastique isn’t a front runner this EMI twofer is worth acquiring for Lélio alone.

-- Dan Morgan, MusicWeb International [Reviewing EMI Gemini 5176542]
Works on This Recording
1. Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 by Hector Berlioz
Conductor: Jean Martinon
Orchestra/Ensemble: ORTF Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic
Written: 1830 ; France
2. Lélio, Op. 14bis by Hector Berlioz
Performer: Jean van Gorp (Baritone), Charles Burles (Tenor), Nicolai Gedda (Tenor), Michel Sendrez (Piano), Jean Topart (Spoken Vocals)
Conductor: Jean Martinon
Period: Romantic
Written: 1831-1832 ; France
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