Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique; Herminie

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COMPOSERS: Berlioz
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Symphonie fantastique; Herminie
PERFORMER: Aurélia Legay (soprano); Mahler CO, Les Musiciens du Louvre/Marc Minkowski
CATALOGUE NO: 474 209-2
As an admirer of Marc Minkowski’s recordings of music from Rameau to Offenbach, I expected this performance of Berlioz’s first great achievement to explode with life, wit, energy and elegance. The reality, alas, is more uneven. Least successful is the ène aux champs’, where Minkowski’s meticulous realisation of articulation fails to alleviate a heavy and lifeless impression. In the first two movements, too, the details on which Minkowski focuses impose unnecessary decorum on the character of the music. By contrast, the Gallic flair slathered on to the last two movements overcompensates for earlier restraint. Here a freewheeling spirit overwhelms telling details – for example, Minkowski seems not to notice the point of the varied timing and dynamics assigned to percussion crashes at the climax of the ‘Marche au supplice’. John Eliot Gardiner so brilliantly dramatises that moment and, more generally, the sonorities, details and passion of the entire work, that his remains my benchmark version, despite the peculiarly unreverberant acoustic of the old hall of the Paris Conservatoire, the site of the work’s premiere.

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The cantata Herminie, written in 1828, makes a natural coupling for the Symphonie fantastique because it features the theme that became the idée fixe of the later work. This performance, featuring the fine soprano Aurélia Legay, is more successful than that of the Symphony in deriving dramatic expression from the details of Berlioz’s articulation. Minkowski’s decision to trill some chords in recitatives is, however, a controversial realisation of Berlioz’s notation. David Breckbill