Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique; Le carnaval romain

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

WORKS: Symphonie fantastique; Le carnaval romain
PERFORMER: RPO/Charles Mackerras
‘An admirable work,’ wrote Saint-Saëns of the Symphonie fantastique (first heard in Paris in 1830), ‘completely original in style, in sonority… as young, as outstanding, as on its first day.’ With so many good classic and reference-standard recordings about – from Beecham, Cluytens, Martinon and Bernstein to Colin Davis (Concertgebouw), Abbado (Chicago), Karajan (Berlin) and Norrington (period instruments) – consumer choice has never been better, the competition for newcomers never tougher.


Bychkov and the Paris Orchestra in the Salle Wagram give a well-schooled account, attentive to detail, dynamics and ensemble. But, emotionally, there’s not much fantasy, poetry or electricity. Consistently, Bychkov seems more concerned with incidental refinements, with mechanical precision, than with line or structure. Frequently phrases will begin and end beautifully but lose tension in the middle. And his mannered fragmentation of the music into cameos and episodes tends to undermine its larger-scale architecture. Other minus points: no repeats, no cornet in the ‘Ball’, occasionally reticent brass, some unsettling shifts in tempo – the worst, showing signs of a poor edit, at bar 67 of the finale (2:23 mins).


Mackerras and the RPO at CTS Studios, Wembley, may not be so detailed, rhythmically exact or disciplined, but overall their view of this watershed symphony is freer, more flowing and less fussy, there’s more adrenalin. Spiritually and stylistically they get to its heart – witness the infectious grace of the ‘Ball’ and the magical cor anglais and offstage oboe dialogue of ‘Scene in the Country’. Like Davis and Abbado, Mackerras (a committed structuralist) observes the repeats of the first and fourth movements. He also (in the Klemperer tradition) favours the obbligato cornet part of the second. Ates Orga