BERLIOZ: Symphonie Fantastique; La Mort de Cleopatra – Susan Graham, soprano/ Berlin Philharmonic/ Simon Rattle – EMI 2 16224 0, 75:59 ***:
This is a good, not a great, Fantastique. Rattle offers us nothing new that hasn’t been heard or tried before, and the sound is certainly nowhere near the best to be found, even counting recordings that go back 50 years or more. You might compare this one to Karajan’s last account on DGG, not a bad thing, or perhaps even more to the EMI reading by Beecham. Yes, I think that last one is really more to the point, which is surprising. We like to think of Rattle as somewhat of a maverick, but often we marvel when he turns up something completely provincial and mainstream. Such is this reading. I mentioned Beecham—maybe because that conductor’s deliberateness and refusal to milk the piece for emotional shock value always takes me aback whenever I hear it. Rattle does likewise, opting for a very stately tempo in the first movement, a dignified and even staid ballroom scene that insists on real dance tempos (even at the end), a lovely pastoral outing in three with a nice thunderstorm looming at the end, a march to the scaffold that seems almost invitatory, and a final Witches Sabbath that fails to ignite, even with the last second attempt at creating excitement at the end by the sudden leap of tempo. All in all it’s just too stuffy and PG-rated, hardly what Berlioz would have wanted.
The sound is odd also, reminiscent of that old Karajan EMI Berlin stage where you can actually hear the great distance among the various sections because the orchestra is so large. There is also a degree of Karajan homogenization to the sound in general. When the trombones enter the effect is stilted because we can tell they are so far back on the stage—it’s like a middle row balcony seat. Perhaps there is more impact in the hall itself live, but the recording is rather disparate. La Mort de Cleopatra is different—maybe the orchestration adapts easier to the soundstage here, but Susan Graham’s radiantly sung Cleopatra is captured very nicely, in one of the best performances since Jennie Tourel teamed up with Bernstein. This cantata is one of four that Berlioz finished between 1827 and 1830 in competition for the Prix de Rome, a prize that the jury refused to award anyone, especially since Berlioz’s far-fetched and far-reaching harmonies puzzled those who were still coming to grips with Beethoven.
So this is worth it for the Cleo, but the other is still better served by any number of other recordings, including the 1954 Munch (SACD), any of three Bernsteins, Tilson Thomas in SF, Muti’s Philly EMI, Martinon, Beecham, or even Paray (also SACD). But this one will not offend if you want the Cleopatra, only perhaps seem superfluous.
— Steven Ritter