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.

JJP

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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.

Mission Statement

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.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa