Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique (SACD review)

Also, Beatrice et Benedict overture. Robin Ticciati, Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Linn Records CKD 400.

Most of my favorite conductors in the Symphonie fantastique over the years have been older folk, people like Sir Thomas Beecham, Leonard Bernstein, Sir Colin Davis, Leopold Stokowski, John Eliot Gardiner, Sir Roger Norrington, Charles Munch, and Jean Martinon. So I thought it might be fun to hear what a relatively young man, Robin Ticciati, in his mid twenties and his Scottish Chamber Orchestra could do with this well-traveled warhorse. It becomes doubly fascinating when you consider that Berlioz was about Ticciati's age when he wrote the piece.

The composer, Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), wrote his Symphonie fantastique in 1830, and it wasn't long before it became one of the most influential pieces of music of all time. With programmatic elements of predecessors like Vivaldi's Four Seasons and Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony and using a huge orchestral arrangement for well over a hundred players (Berlioz employed about 130 musicians for the première), the result must have been extraordinary for its period. Yet the music remains extraordinary for our own time, too. In the work's five movements, the young Berlioz wrote autobiographically of the hopeless love of a young man for a woman, the young man falling into a drug-induced dream, which the composer describes in his music. The woman reappears throughout the Symphonie in the form of an idée fixe, a "fixed idea" the young man cannot shake, a musical innovation Berlioz used to advantage.

Ticciati begins "The Reveries--Passions" slowly and builds the tensions incrementally, finally gathering up a good head of steam and arriving at a rather imaginative and effective climax before the music falls back into the distant mists of the composer's mind. Very nice.

"The Ball" also holds up successfully, the waltz having an abundance of lilt and élan. If it's a tad more vigorous than we might usually hear it, chalk it up to youthful exuberance on Ticciati's part.

The third-movement scene in the fields comes across with an appropriate air of serene, pastoral longing. This leads to the final two movements, which have given so many audiophiles delight over the years.

In the "March to the Scaffold" the Scottish Chamber Orchestra does its best, yet there is no compensating for a full orchestra, and while they produce a commendably transparent sound, it isn't exactly the biggest sound needed in the music. Then, too, Ticciati seems more interested here in simply making the music exciting rather than particularly dramatic, sardonic, or amusing.

Finally, we come to "The Witches' Sabbath," which under Ticciati is not quite as scary as Bernstein made it nor as creative as Beecham conjured it up. Still, it's fun in a more jaunty sort of way. It works well enough as parody, and again Ticciati provides loads of enthusiasm, making the ending as thrilling as ever.

As a coupling, we get the Beatrice et Benedict overture, based in part on Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing. Berlioz called the music "a caprice written with the point of a needle." It's light, sweet, lively, and exuberant by turns.

Made by Linn Records at Usher Hall, Edinburgh, UK, from October 7-11, 2011, for playback via hybrid stereo/multichannel SACD, the resultant sound is impressive largely because it's so lifelike. Using a Sony SACD player, I found the stereo layer produced a genuine sense of depth in the orchestra, a reasonably quick transient response, a strong impact (especially during those big bass wallops), ample clarity throughout the midrange, a wide stereo spread, and a fairly good extension of lows and highs. With plenty of warm, resonant air around the instruments, the sound is close to what a person might actually hear at a live event, at least as heard from a modest distance.


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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