Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique (CD review)

Also, Le corsaire overture. Leonard Slatkin, Orchestre National de Lyon. Naxos 8.572886.

Before we begin, I have to mention again some of my favorite conductors in Symphonie fantastique recordings: Sir Thomas Beecham, Leonard Bernstein, Sir Colin Davis, Leopold Stokowski, John Eliot Gardiner, Sir Roger Norrington, Charles Munch, and Jean Martinon. I mention these names because so well-traveled a warhorse as the Berlioz already has heady competition for any new recording, even when the recording comes from so notable a conductor as Leonard Slatkin.

For those of you like me who need a road map to keep up with the musical travels of Maestro Slatkin since his leaving the St. Louis Symphony in 1996, here’s a quick rundown: He was the director of the Blossom Festival of the Cleveland Orchestra from 1990-1999. Then, he was the Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., from 1996 to 2008. In 2000, he became the Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, a post he held until September 11, 2004. He was also the Principal Guest Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra from 1997 to 2000, and in 2004 became the Principal Guest Conductor at the Hollywood Bowl for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Following that in 2005, he became the Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, London. In 2006, he became the Music Advisor to the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and then in 2008 the Principal Guest Conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Finally, in 2007 Slatkin became the Music Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and in 2011 the Music Director of the Orchestre National de Lyon, the posts he currently holds.  Whew!

Now, to the music at hand. 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 similar to previous works 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; indeed, it remains extraordinary even today. It’s not really a traditional symphony despite the title, more like a psychodrama in five movements. Therein, the young Berlioz writes 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.

As we might expect from Maestro Slatkin, he takes a fairly literal view of things, which in a programmatic work like the Symphonie fantastique may be the best course. He interprets the opening movement at face value, the Reveries--Passions, never quite animating it as much as I’d like but nicely playing up the contrasts as the dejected romantic of the score conjures up opium dreams and nightmares of his lost love.

The second movement describes a ball in which the young man catches a glimpse of his beloved.  Berlioz later composed a cornet part for this section, which Slatkin includes as a bonus track. Anyway, the conductor ensures the music itself sweeps and swirls in an appropriately questioning, probing manner.

Next, we come to the scene in the country, a slow Adagio. In it, the young man sees a pair of shepherd boys playing a pipe melody to call their flock, and all is well until, as always, the young man notices his love in the picture. Needless to say, the music shifts into a left sudden turn, which Slatkin negotiates smoothly, if without too much high drama.

Then we come to the final two movements that audiophiles so adore because they burst over with so much busy, vigorous energy. They’re ideal for showing off one’s audio system. The March to the Scaffold brings the young man to his death for the murder of his beloved, and the Witches’ Sabbath finds the poor fellow apparently at Judgment Day in hell. Beecham and Bernstein generated genuine electricity in these movements; Slatkin merely contents himself with some passing color. I’d rather have felt a little more of the young man’s agony. Still, it’s hard to go wrong in this music, and there remains much one can commend in Slatkin’s low-key characterization. At least he doesn’t let the excitement alone carry the day. It’s also nice to see that Naxos chose to divide the final movement into four separate tracks for an easy indexing of ideas.

Besides the alternative cornet movement, the coupling on the disc is Berlioz’s Overture to Le Corsaire. Here, too, Slatkin’s reading sounds admirably restrained and unaffected, with a dashing élan.

Naxos recorded the music in 2011 at the Auditorium de Lyon, France, to generally good effect. The sound is typical of much of Naxos’s work, perfectly adequate yet never quite reaching audiophile heights. The all-important midrange is refined and natural, if not entirely transparent. The high and low ends appear well enough represented, though not particularly extended except at the very end of the Symphonie. Dynamic range and impact appear a tad limited, so they don’t produce quite the force of an actual orchestral experience. In all, the sonics seem ideally suited to easy listening rather than really critical listening.


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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.

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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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa