Berlioz Symphonie fantastique
Jean-François Heisser, Marie-Josèphe Jude (piano)
Harmonia Mundi HMM 902503 52:28 mins
Before the convenience of recordings, orchestral repertoire was heard most frequently on the piano. Moreover, rival instrument makers constantly experimented in an attempt to gain an edge in a lucrative, yet highly competitive market. One ingenious innovation was the double piano, known in France as ‘vis-à-vis’ (face-to-face), where two instruments (with separate keyboards and sets of strings) are combined in one cabinet. This intriguing disc features a fine example, made by Pleyel in 1928 to a design that dated back to the 1890s, being put through its paces in Jean-François Heisser’s transcription of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique for two pianos.
So, neither this curious hybrid instrument nor the skilful transcription are from the same historical period as Berlioz’s radical symphony. Crucially, though, the musical results are compelling, with Heisser and Marie-Josèphe Jude not only finding a wealth of colour, but also pacing the flow of the music masterfully. The benefits of two pianists playing in the same register and pedalling independently are apparent in the shepherd’s calls in the ‘Scène aux champs’. New insights abound, with a truly affecting wistful fragility in the symphony’s opening pages, supplanted by impressive richness of tone once Berlioz’s tale truly sparks into life. There are, inevitably, moments that fall short of the orchestral palette, especially in the witches Sabbath. The cackling clarinet tune is jolly rather than maniacal, and the supposedly doom-laden bells are decidedly chirpy, yet there is still magic aplenty in this intriguing perspective on Berlioz’s vision.