Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique (SACD review)

Sir Colin Davis, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. PentaTone PTC 5186 184.

It's now been well over three decades, and Sir Colin Davis's 1974 Philips recording of Hector Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique is still the one to beat. I first owned it on LP, and this SACD is, I believe, the third time it's appeared on disc.  You understand, however, it has never been my absolute favorite, as good as it is; for an absolute favorite, I have long enjoyed Sir Thomas Beecham's more colorful, more idiomatic (and much older) stereo account on EMI.

Still, it is Davis who remains the safest choice. Some listeners may even find him too safe, too conservative, but I believe Davis captures most of the dreamy, bizarre, surreal, even frightening aspects of Berlioz's self-proclaimed musical drama. (Berlioz would go so far as to describe the work as "a hallucination in the midst of an opium dream," as Franz Steiger comments in the booklet note.) If Davis's interpretation of the music is a bit more literal than Beecham's (or Martinon's or Bernstein's or Gardiner's), so be it. Davis is still mighty persuasive, the waltz appropriately lilting, the slow movement gripping, the final two segments intense, odd, funny, atmospheric, and stirring.

The folks at Philips themselves reissued the recording in their "Originals" series a few years before this PentaTone release, transferring it from a 96kHz/24-bit master that sounded quite good. Now it's PentaTone's turn to bring out the recording, this time in one of their hybrid SACDs, and they've made a good thing even better. You get not only the regular stereo version that you can play on any standard CD player, but you get a four-channel version in SACD, taken from the original four-channel Philips master tape.

The first thing I did was compare the PentaTone stereo version with the Philips stereo version side-by-side in separate, standard CD players.  After adjusting for output variables, I confess I could hear little difference between them that I couldn't attribute to the almost indistinguishable differences in the two players. Then I compared the PentaTone SACD layer (in two-channel only and using a Sony SACD player) with the Philips stereo version and found the PentaTone slightly clearer and more robust. I suspect that the real advantage of the SACD layer, however, was one I couldn't access--the two rear channels--but if you have the facility for using them, it could not but improve matters.

Adapted from a review the author originally published in the $ensible Sound magazine.



  1. On the question of the recorded sound, does the 24-bit Philips 50 remaster sound very good and hold up well? I ask because the audiophile listeners who swear by the earliest editions of recordings don't make me feel comfortable. Also, if you compare the Pentatone CD layer sound with the 24-bit remaster, is there a discernible difference? Or is it a waste for those who haven't got SACD players? I ask because some SACDs use the stereo layer from the previous Red Book CD releases.

  2. As I say, I could hear no real difference between the SACD's stereo layer and the regular Philips disc. Maybe a pair of certified "golden ears" could hear night-and-day differences. I didn't.


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 more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine 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, 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 Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. 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 LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. 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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa