Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique (DVD review)

Also, Rameau: Les Boreades ballet suite. Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.  Medici Arts 2057558.

The DVD keep case notes that "this 1993 recording must be hailed as a document of supreme historical importance as it is the first audio-visual live recording of a concert given by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker. Six years later the orchestra voted by a large majority to appoint Rattle its new principal conductor and artistic director in succession to Claudio Abbado." The hyperbole of "supreme historical importance" aside, it is a meaningful event, not only because we get to see Rattle leading the Berlin players but because he so fervently leads them in so diverse a program of French music.

Rattle chose for the event Rameau's ballet suite for Les Boreades, a purely Baroque composition for small-scale ensemble, and Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, a thoroughly trailblazing Romantic work for a decidedly large-scale orchestra. It's a wonderful juxtaposition of musical extremes, Rattle leading both of them with almost youthful zeal.

The concert begins with the music of Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), and Rattle using a trimmed-down Berlin Philharmonic. He does up the suite's twelve movements with energy and élan, the video portion of the disc pointing up Rattle's apparent delight in the undertaking as he practically grins from ear to ear while conducting the piece.

Then we get the Symphonie fantastique, written by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) when the composer was only in his mid twenties and pining (in the music and in real life) for a lost love. The piece paved the way for more innovations in musical themes and orchestrations, and Rattle seems to take pleasure in making sure we know about it. Unlike the conductor's more-recent Berlin Philharmonic treatment of the work on an EMI compact disc, this earlier performance (some fifteen years earlier) shows far more animation, color, and character. Maybe Rattle is slowing down with age, becoming more cautious; I don't know. In any case, here he appears to put more energy into the proceedings.

In the "Reveries" Rattle is passionate; in the waltz at "A Ball" he produces a charming lilt; and in the "Scene in the Country" he introduces an ironically bucolic atmosphere. Then we come to the two most-famous movements, "The March to the Scaffold" and "The Dream of a Sabbath Night" (or Witches' Sabbath), both of which Rattle treats more with grace and style than with outright mischief or fury, but then he lets loose in the closing minutes. This is basically a forthright rather than wholly exhilarating interpretation, the conductor allowing the composer do most of the work, which for Berlioz works out just fine.

In terms of the disc's video presentation, it comes in a basic, Nineties television-broadcast 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the picture a tad soft and fuzzy, even by standard-definition yardsticks. The most refreshing thing about the video is being able to see the look in Rattle's eyes and the expression on his face as he conducts, something a conventional audio-only CD obviously doesn't permit one to do.

Insofar as the audio is concerned, the DVD comes with three formats: PCM stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, and DTS 5.1. As with other comparisons I've made of classical-music DVDs using these formats, the PCM stereo sounds the smoothest and warmest of the three but the least clear; the Dolby Digital 5.1 adds more ambient bloom in the surround speakers; and the DTS 5.1 seems the most dynamic and transparent, albeit at the expense of being slightly brighter. I listened (and watched) first in my home-theater room using a 7.1 speaker setup and then in my living room using two speakers. I switched around a good deal among the three audio formats and found that none of them matched the sound on a well-recorded, well-transferred CD. All three of the DVD's audio formats appeared veiled and dull by comparison. And, of course, there is the audience noise to contend with, which is, in any case, a part of what makes the audio-video experience appealing to a lot of folks.

The entire concert lasts about an hour and a half, the disc includes a menu and chapter index, and the keep case comes with a handy informational booklet insert.


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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa