Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique (CD review)

Yoav Talmi, San Diego Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.553597.

A little over a decade ago while the rest of the classical recording industry was in decline, Naxos persisted in releasing a multitude of new discs every month. This 2002 release of the Symphonie fantastique with Yoav Talmi and the San Diego Symphony is a good example of why they were able to do this when everyone around them seemed to be falling apart. The orchestra is not world renowned, but it is quite capable. The conductor is not world renowned, but he is quite competent. The sound is not earthshaking, but it is better than many of the albums the bigger studios were producing at the time. And lest we forget, the price of Naxos discs has always been more than right.

French composer Hector Berlioz (1802-1869) wrote his semi-autobiographical Symphonie fantastique in 1830 with a much-augmented ensemble for the day and in orchestral tones only hinted at by previous composers. It took audiences by surprise back then and has been delighting folks ever since. Of course, after hearing so many different conductors and orchestras performing it over the years, it's hard truly to surprise most ears anymore. Talmi is no exception. His interpretation seems to me capable but not a little perfunctory. He carries out the waltz in "Un Bal," for example, with a nice lilt, but the "Marche to the Scaffold" appears too deadpan and the "Witch's Sabbath" not nearly as menacing as it could be.

Yoav Talmi
For comparison purposes, I listened again to Sir Thomas Beecham's account (EMI), Leonard Bernstein's (Hi-Q), Sir Colin Davis's (Pentatone, or any of the three he did and the second one with the Concertgebouw in particular), and John Eliot Gardiner (Philips, with period instruments). Under these better-known conductors this old warhorse offers a lot more color and excitement than Talmi brings to it. What's more, you'll also find that the orchestras involved in the comparisons produce a bigger, richer, more well-balanced sound than the San Diego group do.

On the other hand, Talmi's performance is more than adequate for anyone who has never heard the work before and is looking for a good, fairly inexpensive digital starting place.

The sound Naxos engineers provide is close to first-rate. I say "close" because I found that it too often highlights too many instruments. It begins to sound artificial as first one and then another section of the orchestra comes to the forefront in volume. Other than that, the sound is clean and dynamic, with especially good, solid bass. Audiophiles sometimes use the Symphonie fantastique as demo material, especially the last two movements, and almost anyone would understand why after listening to this recording. Even though the miking is a little close and compartmentalized, the sound makes a good impact.

This would not be my first choice in this work, but the buyer could hardly go too wrong with it, either.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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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 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