Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique (CD review)

Also, Le Francs-juges overture. Roger Norrington, the London Classical Players. Virgin 0946 363286-2.

When Roger Norrington made this recording of Hector Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, originally issued by EMI in 1989, it beat to the punch in the period-instruments field the Philips recording by John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique by several years. I mention this because now that Virgin Records have reissued Norrington's version at a fairly low price, the two discs are now more competitive with one another. Norrington's is cheaper; Gardiner's is slightly better.

The trouble with Norrington's performance is that if you compare it to Gardiner side by side, it seems rather stiff. Gardiner seems quite a bit more fluid, while building greater tension and excitement, especially in the final movements. Where Norrington comes off best is in the second-movement Waltz, which is a bit smoother and more flowing than the rest of the performance. Other than that, Norrington is rather mechanical and flat-footed even in the final two movements, which ought to be humorous, exciting, scary, impressive, or something along those lines.  I mean, there used to be a time when any self-proclaimed audiophile used the last two movements of the Symphonie fantastique as demo material.  So, of the two recordings I've mentioned on period instruments, it's Gardiner who gets and keeps my attention.

There are other things to consider, though, like the sound of the two discs. Norrington's recording has the advantage of greater clarity and delivery, while Gardiner's recording has greater warmth and bloom. It would have been nice to have a little of both, but both are compromises of sorts.

Still, I wouldn't discount Norrington's way with a period interpretation. As always, he attempts to follow the composer's metronome markings to the letter; it's just that the results here come off sounding more mechanical than musical. Oh, well, fans of Norrington will probably not be disappointed, and, as I say, the sound is quite good. Besides, the Norrington disc offers the Le Francs-juges overture as a bonus, and it is always fun.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For over 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me--point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, as of right now it comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio High Current preamplifier, AVA FET Valve 550hc or Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa