Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique

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LABELS: Philips
WORKS: Symphonie fantastique
PERFORMER: Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/John Eliot Gardiner
If one can generalise about Berlioz conductors, it is by asserting that the best are those aware that he wrote more than the Fantastique and a couple of overtures; happily Gardiner is in this select class. His performance may be less riskily exciting than Norrington’s pioneering period-instrument recording for EMI, but is also more satisfying. An extra claim to authenticity resides in the use of the hall in the Paris Conservatoire where the symphony was first performed. Its dryness proves a price worth paying for marvellous clarity (though the bells of the finale, wonderfully deep as Berlioz desired, resonate as if in a cathedral), and – which Norrington did not manage – for a full dynamic range from pppp to fff. Gardiner gives us both repeats; he includes the sprightly cornet solo which Berlioz added to the second movement, balancing it better than usual to add glitter without dominating. Apart from the vivid colours of the brass and the tart bassoons, one might well overlook the period instruments; attention is rightly directed to hearing the music itself as both revolutionary and Romantic. This recording joins those of Norrington, Davis and Martinon among the essential recordings of the Symphonie fantastique. Julian Rushton