Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique; La mort de Cleopatre (CD review)

Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, with Susan Graham. EMI 50999 2 16224 0 3.

For the past few years I've been buying as many Japanese EMI-Toshiba classical remasters as I can find on-line because I think they sound better--clearer and more dynamic--than most of the English parent company's releases. I mention this because even though Simon Rattle's new disc of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique is thankfully not done live, it still doesn't have the clarity of many of the old Klemperer, Beecham, and Previn recordings of the late Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies.

I have the feeling that ever since the introduction of digital recording some three decades ago, record companies have been going out of their way not to produce a hard, metallic, so-called "digital" sound. The trouble is, they sometimes go to the extreme and produce soft, mushy affairs. This one with the Berlin Philharmonic is not at all soft or mushy, but it does not particularly impress one with the transparency of its sound, either. It simply displays ordinary, somewhat undistinguished audio. Which is something of a shame in the case of the Symphonie fantastique because it's a work that can provide a lot of sonic wow in its final two movements. Here, the sonics come off as rather commonplace.

Nor does maestro Rattle's interpretation do much to set the adrenaline flowing. His performance is a fairly straightforward affair, with nothing really coming to life: Not the "Reveries," which lack romantic fervor; not "The Ball," which is rather cool; not "The Scene in the Country," which is too relaxed; not the "March to the Scaffold," which is just plain mundane; not even the "Witches' Sabbath," which you'd think would be hard to hold down, but Rattle manages it.

No, I'd say if you want a no-nonsense performance, you'd do best to stick with Colin Davis Concertgebouw Orchestra recording (Philips). Or maybe Thomas Beecham's more flamboyant realization (EMI) or Leonard Bernstein's more demonic one (also EMI). They tend to make Rattle's reading sound like just that: a simple "reading" that never catches fire.

Well, at least the coupling comes off a little better, but it's hardly worth buying the whole album for it.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa