Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique (CD review)

Also, Les Francs-Juges overture. Francois-Xavier Roth, Les Siecles. Harmonia Mundi HMM 902644.

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),[1] 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.

Francois-Xavier Roth
Berlioz titled the opening movement "Reveries--Passions," describing the dejected romantic lover of the score conjuring up opium dreams and nightmares of his lost love. I mentioned that Berlioz used over a hundred players in his arrangement, and Les Siecles come close with almost a hundred in their ensemble. Yet because it's a period band and not a modern orchestra, there is an added clarity to the sound. It's not as lush or rich a sound as a modern orchestra would produce, but it's quite impressive in its translucence.

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:

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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 both its equipment and recordings 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 they 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 Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, 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.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa