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.


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