You'll find dozens, maybe hundreds of recordings of Hector Berlioz's popular Symphonie fantastique. But you'll not find many of them done by a period instruments band in a historically informed performance. Here, you will. Francois-Xavier Roth leads his period ensemble Les Siecles (The Centuries) in an interpretation based on Roth's close study of the composer's autograph score and even using the church bells of his hometown. It's probably about as close as we're going to get to what Berlioz heard and imagined when he wrote the piece in 1830.
For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Les Siecles, here is some info from Wikipedia that may help: "Les Siècles is a French philharmonic orchestra founded in 2003 by François-Xavier Roth, whose ambition is to put works from the 17th to today into perspective. The musicians of this orchestra play each repertoire on the appropriate historical instruments.
Les Siècles perform regularly in Paris (Opéra Comique, Salle Pleyel, Théâtre du Châtelet, Philharmonie de Paris), in La Côte-Saint-André (Aisne department), in Aix-en-Provence, Metz, Caen, Nîmes, Royaumont and international stages, Amsterdam (Royal Concertgebouw), London (BBC Proms), Bremen, Brussels (Klara Festival), Wiesbaden, Luxembourg, Cologne, Tokyo, Essen.
Eager to transmit to the greatest number the passion for classical music, the musicians of the ensemble regularly propose educational actions in schools, hospitals or prisons. The orchestra is also a partner of the Atelier symphonique départemental de l'Aisne du Jeune Orchestre européen Hector Berlioz, and DEMOS (Dispositif d'Éducation musicale et orchestrale à vocation sociale) in Picardy."
Anyway, you are probably already know the Symphonie fantastique pretty well. After Berlioz wrote it, it didn't take long for it to become one of the most influential pieces of music of all time. With programmatic elements and using a huge orchestral arrangement for well over a hundred players (I've read that Berlioz employed about 130 musicians for the première), the result must have been extraordinary for its time--or any time. Nevertheless, it's not really a traditional symphony; it's more like a psychodrama in five movements, wherein the young Berlioz writes autobiographically of the hopeless love of a young man for a woman, and the young man falling into a drug-induced dream, which the composer describes in his music. The woman reappears throughout the music in the form of an idée fixe, a "fixed idea" that the young man cannot shake, a musical innovation Berlioz used to advantage and that later composers like Richard Wagner used extensively.
As important, Maestro Roth takes his time to show us the narrative rather than just tell it by playing the notes. He conjures up most the movement's pictorial elements quite well, aurally painting the tone poem as a portrait we can see in our minds. In other words, he does what any good conductor should do: He invests the music with color, passion, excitement, and sorrow as the case may be.
The second movement, "Un bal," describes a ball in which the young man catches a flash of his beloved. Roth keeps it flowing with exquisite dance-like rhythms and textures. Although he moves it along at a fairly speedy gait, it never feels fast or rushed.
After that is the "Scene aux champs," the scene in the country, a long, slow adagio. In it, the young man sees a pair of shepherds playing a pipe melody to call their flock, and all is well until, as always, the young man notices his love in the picture, and the music takes a sudden turn. Again, Maestro Roth has the measure of the score, as he builds the movement from slow and ardent to desperately fervent.
Then, we come to the two movements that audiophiles most love because they bubble over with so much busy, vigorous energy and orchestral flourish. They're ideal for showing off one's audio system, and what better way to do it than with a period-instrument band? The "March to the Scaffold" brings the young man to a dream of his death for the murder of his beloved, and the "Witches' Sabbath" finds the poor fellow imagining his fate at Judgment Day in hell.
The "March to the Scaffold" brings up an interesting question. Should the conductor take it seriously or as a cartoonish joke? A lot of conductors seem to consider it a bit of whimsy, having the character in the music stride jauntily up to his death. Others, like Sir Thomas Beecham (EMI/Warner), see it as a more somber affair. Maestro Roth takes a measured approach, keeping the scene staid but not a little fantastic. However, I thought he could have made the final movement, "Witches' Sabbath," a little scarier, as Bernstein did in his 1976 recording with the French National Orchestra (EMI/Hi-Q). While the Symphonie should end in an ostentatious flourish, Roth's interpretation is a tad light on spectacle.
As a companion piece on the disc, Maestro Roth selected Berlioz's overture to Les Franc-juges, a work the composer wrote only a few years earlier than his "symphonie." It's really only the overture that most people know today, so it's not a great loss having so little of the music. Whatever, Roth does a good job playing up the contrasts in the music and making it enjoyably energetic.
Producer Jiri Heger and engineer Alix Ewald recorded the album at Maison de l'Orchestre national d'lle-de-France, Alfortville, France in July 2019. As we might expect from a period ensemble, there is a good deal of transparency involved as the instruments stand out realistically. Then, add in an enormous dynamic range (watch that volume control), and you get a most lifelike presentation. The orchestral spread is wide but not exaggerated; the orchestral depth is fairly deep; the mild ambient bloom of the hall is pleasant; the transient impact is strong; and the frequency range is reasonably well extended, though somewhat lacking in deepest bass and highest treble. About the only quibble I have is that at higher volume, there is a touch of stridency present. At more reasonable levels, it sounds excellent.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: