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.

JJP

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


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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.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa