BERLIOZ: Symphonie fantastique Op. 14 – Orchestre National de France/ Leonard Bernstein (1976) – EMI/Hi-Q Records xrcd24 HIQXRCD14 ****:
There are plenty of recordings of Hector Berlioz’s first great work, stimulated by his obsession with the British actress Harriet Smithson. His first performance of it in 1830 in Paris put him immediately at the forefront of Romantic period music. It used the most musicians of any orchestral work written to that time: over 90. Unlike Stravinsky’s later Rite of Spring or Satie’s Parade, it did not cause a riot, but it was clearly a novel and powerful work, which came complete with a program detailing the series of fantasies which provided the title of the symphony. Harriet became the idée fixe of the work.
The work has five movements instead of the usual four of a symphony. They are 1) Reveries – Passions, 2) A Ball, 3) Scene in the Fields, 4) March to the Scaffold, 5) Dreams of a Witches’ Sabbath. The symphony has the subtitle of “Episode in the Life of an Artist,” and the march to the guillotine is for after the artist has supposedly killed the woman who has plagued him and is paying for it with his life. In the final movement he is experiencing his own funeral surrounded by witches and evil beings. The loud bells in it are intended to shake up the listener, and have provided audiophiles an exciting sound to focus on in recordings.
Leonard Bernstein had a distinctively dramatic approach to the Symphonie fantastique. His original recording of it for Columbia was made in 1963 with the New York Philharmonic and reissued using Sony’s SBM on Sony Classical SMK 60968. Bernstein later re-recorded the work for EMI at the Salle Wagram in Paris in 1976, and this is the one which has been remastered from the original tapes at Abbey Road Studios by Resonance Recordings Ltd. and issued on this $40 xrcd24 from JVC, which plays on any standard CD deck.
I naturally had a few other Symphonie fantastiques in my collection and did some comparisons. I actually preferred the 1963 Bernstein version, which seemed to have more of the edgy drama which he later rolled off a bit. The sonics are quite good and not that much worse than the Hi-Q reissue, except for a lesser dynamic range. In addition, you get a quarter-hour talk by Bernstein (made in 1964) that encapsulates his amazing music instruction approach which he popularized in his TV appearances. It certainly beats the on-the-podium comments from various conductors I have heard during my lifetime. His talk is titled “Berlioz Takes a Trip” and is pure 1960s thru and thru. He doesn’t say anything about the artist “poisoning himself” with opium—as was the usual description of this work at the time. Instead he describes the Symphonie fantastique as the first psychedelic symphony.
Then there is the RCA Living Stereo SACD of the work with Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (82876-67899-2). While only two channels instead of the three most of the Living Stereo SACDs are, it still sizzles and this 1954 recording has the BSO sounding richer and fuller than either of the Bernstein versions. For a straight multichannel SACD I also like the Telarc (60578) by Paavo Jarvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Both the RCA and Telarc fill out the symphony with the “Love Scene” from Berlioz’s Roméo and Juliette.