Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Berlioz
LABELS: NAIVE
WORKS: Symphonie fantastique
PERFORMER: Orchestre de Paris/Christoph Eschenbach
CATALOGUE NO: V 4935
I thought I had Christoph Eschenbach’s conducting pegged. In Germanic repertoire from Beethoven to Schoenberg he has struck me as sober, patient, long-breathed and immune to the temptation of highlighting expressive details. This recording of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique – Eschenbach’s first with the Orchestre de Paris since becoming its music director in 2000 – goes a long way towards contradicting such a characterisation. Here the music seethes with intensity and dramatic temperament, from the skittering violins 17 bars into the first movement onwards. Stabbing accents and incisive phrasing regularly enliven the texture, and the music develops overt and irresistible momentum.

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Amid these attractions are moments of questionable judgement: the reminiscence of the idée fixe at the ball is sentimentally detained, and the rapid accelerando during the swirling string passage just after the grotesque version of the idée fixe in the Witches’ Sabbath represents merely the most extreme touch of flamboyance in a flashily played romp. The Orchestre de Paris displays Gallic verve and adequate polish, and the recorded sound encompasses the large dynamic range successfully.

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This performance supplants neither the best of mainstream accounts (such as Colin Davis’s first recording of the work on Philips, memorable for evoking the languorously poetic realms of passion) nor John Eliot Gardiner’s period-instrument rendition, hard-driven in places but superbly responsive to Berlioz’s dramatic and colouristic imagination. Even so, try to hear this new recording: it reveals a hitherto unfamiliar facet of Eschenbach’s artistry and offers a rousing performance of a perpetually exciting work. David Breckbill