Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique (SACD review)

Also, Le Roi Lear overture. Marek Janowski, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. PentaTone Classics PTC 5186 338.

One of the problems any conductor faces when he or she records a stardard-repertoire item like the Symphonie fantastique is having to compete with the many classic recordings that have gone before it. In the case of the Symphonie fantastique, Marek Janowski and the Pittsburgh Symphony are up against people like Sir Thomas Beecham and the French National Radio Orchestra (EMI), Sir Colin Davis and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips or remastered on PentaTone SACD), John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique (Philips), Leonard Bernstein and the French National Orchestra (EMI), or Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players (Virgin), to name but a few. Formidable competition, indeed.

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) wrote his celebrated Symphonie fantastique in 1830, and it became one of the most influential pieces of music of all time. Combining the programmatic elements of forebears ranging from Vivaldi's Four Seasons to Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony and utilizing an enormous orchestral arrangement for well over a hundred players (Berlioz employed about 130 musicians for the première), the result was extraordinary for its period. I suspect if he'd had a wind machine, electronic instruments, and a light show available to him, Berlioz would have used them, too. Yet the music remains extraordinary for our own times as well, even though people have repeated and imitated it at length.

In the work's five movements, the young Berlioz (in his mid twenties at the time) wrote autobiographically of the hopeless love of a young man for a woman, prompting the young man into a drug-induced vision, which the composer describes in the music. The woman reappears throughout the Symphonie in the form of an idée fixe, a "fixed idea" that will not let the young man go.

The title of the first movement, "Reveries - Passions," should be self-explanatory enough, and under Janowski's baton the dreams are rather languorous, while he expands the ensuing passions into some serious melodrama. Maybe the ebb and flow of the music becomes a bit static; certainly, it has enough red-blooded emotions involved.

The waltz at "The Ball" comes next, Janowski taking it at a quick, flighty pace, losing some of the dance number's initial grace and agility while gaining our attention with its fluid, ongoing momentum.

In the "Scene in the Fields" the dreamer hears a pastoral song, heightening his feeling for the woman, only to let his paranoia about her possible infidelity consume and deflate him. If I think Janowski appears to take this slow movement somewhat perfunctorily, it may simply be that I have never cared much for the music in the first place and would be unimpressed by anybody's interpretation.

The hero imagines in the fourth movement that the courts have convicted him of murdering his loved one, and they are leading him to the scaffold for punishment. It is grim satire to be sure, and it is best if the music be played straight, even ominously, for Berlioz's effect to work. Janowski takes a cautiously middle-of-the-road approach, neither too sinister nor too jaunty. Still, echoes of Beecham's menacing interpretation ring clearly here, and the echoes are hard to dispel.

In the finale, the "Witches' Sabbath," the fates seem to have consigned the young lover to some kind of hell for his crime of passion, there only to see his beloved among the witches. Janowski lets out all the stops here.  Although the results are not as scary as, say, the thrills Bernstein produced, they bring the performance to a respectable close.

PentaTone recorded the music live in 2009 and present it in both two-channel stereo and multichannel surround on a hybrid SACD that sounds smooth and well balanced. In regular stereo (played back in my system on a Sony SACD player), we get wide dynamics and strong impact, if not a lot of stage depth or inner detailing. There is a sort of soft, velvety sheen over the sonics that never quite lets them develop or sparkle as fully as they might. Nor is the front-channel stereo spread all that wide. The bass response and frequency range are fine, however, and one hardly notices the occasional audience noise in the background.

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.

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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