Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique; La mort de Cléopâtre

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WORKS: Symphonie fantastique;
La mort de Cléopâtre
PERFORMER: Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano);
Berlin PO/Simon Rattle
CATALOGUE NO: 216 2240


What price yet another Symphonie fantastique, and from a conductor not exactly renowned for Berlioz? Personally I prefer the richer soundworld period instruments reveal in Berlioz: for example Norrington and Gardiner’s many-coloured brass, including growling ophicleides and serpents. But that shouldn’t rule out great conventional readings by the likes of Munch, Beecham, Davis, even Stokowski; and Simon Rattle’s, it turns out, isn’t merely routine. Partly responsible are the superb Berlin players, with a touch of the old Karajan silk, and the stunningly airy, large-scale recording. Rattle, though, displays the easy lyricism one might anticipate, but more power and atmosphere – Berlioz grandioso. ‘Rêveries’ has a well-judged brooding quality, rather slow but quicker to its passionate outbursts. ‘Un bal’ is warmer and less foreboding than some, with a fleeting, dreamlike swirl, the ‘Scène aux champs’ translucently textured and increasingly intense; the opening oboe sounds too up-front, but the cor anglais’s dialogue with the thunder is suitably eerie. Rattle’s ‘Marche au supplice’ is surprising; though his brass snarl and his timpani tread with awesome force, it’s more noble than brutal. The diabolical orgies finally cut loose in ‘Songe d’une nuit du Sabbat’, with resonantly funebral bells punctuating a thunderous Dies Irae. This won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it’s definitely refreshing. Cléopâtre is also a big-screen performance. Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, today’s reigning Dido, makes Berlioz’s earlier heroine equally epic – and sometimes needs to, among Rattle’s queen-size orchestral agonies. In more natural French than Janet Baker’s classic performance, and more heroically intense than Jennifer Larmore’s new recording, it’s a welcome coupling. Michael Scott Rohan