Berlioz • Liszt
The booklet note tells us that, before the 2009 Proms concert at which these performances were recorded, Barenboim said to his hand-picked Israeli-Arab line-up (plus its members from Andalusia, Turkey and Iran): ‘You’re a wonderful orchestra, and I’m not the worst conductor in the world.’ Indeed – and there’s rather more to it than that. Putting it another way: how many conductors can make this kind of difference? The performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, before a palpably gripped Proms audience, is remarkable for Barenboim’s circle-squaring ability to conjure near-fabulous vividness and excitement without a trace of exaggeration.
From the opening phrase’s swift beginning and lingering rallentando (perfectly judged), Berlioz’s over-performed symphony is revealed as the groundbreaking masterpiece it is, with incisive élan in the first and second movements, and detail beautifully presented without point-making. The ‘Scene in the countryside’ so often feels too long, but not with this level of music-making (the long clarinet solo is exquisitely played); for some reason this movement’s opening and closing oboe and cor anglais shepherd pipes and timpani thunderclaps don’t sound as atmospheric as they should, and the ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ finale could be a bit wilder, but the collective result is still very fine. It’s even finer in Liszt’s Les préludes, whose tendency to bombast is brilliantly subverted by the orchestra’s brass section: with articulation as precise as this, they achieve thrilling results without any excessive loudness, so that the scoring balances itself unerringly, and the music sings and surges with wonderful freedom and freshness.