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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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 Jon 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 more than 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 simpleminded, 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, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
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.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa