Berlioz Symphonie fantastique BR Klassik

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Symphonie fantastique Op. 14
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/ Sir Colin Davis
rec. live composite, 15 & 16 November 1987, Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich
BR Klassik 900220 [59]

BR Klassik has certainly been mining its back catalogue of late; never a month goes by without some new release conducted by one of their impressive trio of chief conductors over the last forty years: Sir Colin Davis, Lorin Maazel and Mariss Jansons. Davis recorded the Symphonie fantastique, a staple of the Romantic repertoire, five times, with the Concertgebouworkest, the LSO (studio and live), the VPO and here in a recording complied from two live performances in the middle of his tenure with the BRSO. It is a little more leisurely than his other recordings by a couple of minutes – nothing significant.

I have never really settled on a favourite recording but have long favoured Munch, Ormandy and Stokowski – not a bad triumvirate, but there must surely also be room for the most significant British champion of Berlioz’ music alongside Beecham – even if he is directing a German orchestra, although Germany was always more receptive to Berlioz’ music than his homeland.

However, first impressions are not promising. The sound is a little opaque and hissy, as if this were analogue tape, not digital, and there is a lack of tautness and energy in the phrasing of those yearning open bars. For comparison, I played the openings of the other three cited above; the immediacy and tension of Stokowski’s Phase 4 recording puts Davis in the shade – and the sound is much better, too: fuller and deeper. Stokowski simply makes this music so much more interesting. Ormandy is afflicted by hiss but introduces great variety into his shaping of the phrases and his orchestra sounds much more involved. The 1962 vintage Munch recording on HDTT oozes Romantic Angst and Munch is perceptibly more subtle in his use of rubato. Having played all three I returned to Davis: dull, dull, dull. Dare I say that mercurial French charm is here usurped by a deathly combination of Teutonic seriousness and British reserve? Well; I just did – because it’s true. It is very hard indeed to make this wonderful music boring but Davis succeeds – and I don’t get it, because the energy of his Berlioz performances was legendary. The orchestra seems to pull back from climaxes, the gradual acceleration beginning four minutes before the end seems laboured and fortissimi are insufficiently articulated.

The second movement ball lacks fantasy and is played very four-square without the hysterical hypersensitivity the music and dramatic context demand; Davis barely bothers with the touches of rubato which Stokowski’s account so enchanting – not to mention the obsessive nature of those harp glissandi caressing the listener’s ear. Munch suggests danger, ecstasy and instability; Davis plays through the music.

The hiss in the acoustic and muddy sound severely compromise the atmosphere of the pastoral middle movement, although clearly from a technical point of view the BRSO is fine. This is a long movement, however, and can easily drag if ambience is lacking – and here it is. Matters improve in the central section but the thinness of the strings is an issue.

The March to the Scaffold is slower than the other three recordings by three minutes – and is too slow not just because Davis takes the repeat (thanks to my MWI colleague Marc Bridle for pointing that out to me); it is laboured and relies on sudden blaring rather than cumulative tension. Stokowski and Ormandy are much more menacing and their timpani have more impact. The ghoulish finale goes better then all four of the preceding movements – it is as if everyone has woken up – but again, direct comparison with Munch reveals what is lacking in detail and nuance; the flexibility and variety of Munch’s direction makes Davis’s look very pedestrian.

I am at a loss to explain why this is so lacklustre, but all great conductors can have an off day and this is a total dud.

Ralph Moore

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