BERLIOZ: Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14a – London Symphony Orch./ Carlos Paita – Lodia LO-CD 777, 50:15 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
Conductor Carlos Paita (b. 1932) endures as one of a number of exciting musical personalities – like Sergiu Celibidache – who first became known to a large international public through recordings. A great deal of interest was created with the release of Paita’s first recording in Decca’s “Phase 4” series, a Wagner program with the New Philharmonia Orchestra, issued in 1968. In the United States, where the recording was issued on the London label, critic Irving Kolodin compared the intensity and brilliance of Paita’s performances with those of Sir Thomas Beecham, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Arturo Toscanini. In France, the LP received the Grand Prix du Disque of the Academie Charles Gros. While Paita himself had known Beecham and Toscanini only through their recordings, he had actually attended concerts and rehearsals under Furtwängler at the famous Teatro Colón when Paita was still a student, and the impact of that legendary figure was a major influence in his own decision to become a conductor.
Paita was born in Buenos Aires. His Italian parents contributed to both the fiery intensity and the unpretentious warm-heartedness that characterize his personality and his musicianship. His mother was a gifted singer and pianist; there was always music in the home when he was a child—on the radio, on records—which encouraged his interest. The formal discipline of conservatory life was not for him, however, but he studied privately with some distinguished teachers: Jacobo Fischer for composition, harmony and counterpoint; Jan Neuchoff, a Leschetitzky pupil, for piano; each permitted Paita to follow his stimulating exposure to Furtwängler and Artur Rodzinski.
Paita inscribed this 1830 Berlioz Symphonie fantastique – which won a Grand Prix du Disque – in 1978 at Kingsway Hall, London. Ever the admirer of Beethoven, Berlioz creates a “biographical” symphony that opens in c minor with his version of a “fate” motif, here an “idée fixe” of his obsessive love who, in her rejection of him, hurls him into a convoluted series of imaginative, opium-induced tableaux indicative of his “amorous despair.” The studied intensity of both the music and its realization remains remarkable, and Barry Tuckwell’s horn work, supported by manic strings, keeps us in thrall. The sudden C Major Allegro agitato e appassionato assai, with its impulsive, demonic starts and stops, its knotty agogics, extends the Beethoven tradition of terraced dynamics par excellence. The Ball scene combines a waltz rhythm with the scherzo format, wherein the strings and harp early weave a mesmeric and eerie occasion in A Major. Cello and double bass communicate the narrator’s gloomy aloofness. Soon the oboe and flute introduce the subject of his anguish into the dance, and the ballroom becomes increasingly illuminated by her presence, finally cascading down a scale passage that ends in whirling torment.
The entire third movement Scene aux Champs pays a huge debt to Beethoven in his Sixth Symphony, as well as to Rousseau’s conceit that Nature might provide a tormented soul a degree of solace. English horn and oboe realize a dialogue between shepherds. The strings, tremolo, provide a degree of Nature’s sanctuary. Once the idee fixe enters, the tranquility of Nature cedes to the heated, mental torture of human affairs, and doubt finds a correspondence in a passing thunderstorm. The LSO tympani, basses, cellos, and woodwinds prove themselves worthy of the international renown they enjoyed in the period of the 1970s and 1980s. The sheer virtuosic bravura of conductor and ensemble delights in the stirring colors of the final two movements, the fateful Marche au Suppplice and the Songe d’une nuit de sabat, a musical enactment of crime and eternal punishment. “Each man kills the thing he loves,” so the Berlioz persona destroys his love and must suffer the guillotine in payment. In a musical equivalent of Black Sabbath – or a counterpart to Hawthorne’s cynical “Young Goodman Brown” – the persona confronts his beloved for the incubus she has become, a (bassoon) parody of loveliness and fidelity. In a sonic pageant worthy of Ingmar’s Bergman’s cinematic nightmares, the idee fixe fuses with the Dies Irae in a savagely cruel round dance, a fugue and a grotesque coda whose cumulative power virtually defined the new generation of Romantics who assumed Beethoven’s epic mantle.