Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique; Les francs-juges Overture

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Berlioz
LABELS: Hanssler
WORKS: Symphonie fantastique; Les francs-juges Overture
PERFORMER: SWR Stuttgart RSO/Roger Norrington
CATALOGUE NO: CD 93.103
Roger Norrington’s first recording of the Symphonie fantastique (released in 1989) was revelatory both for its use of period instruments and for finding so much expressive life in Berlioz’s imaginative orchestration and textures. Alas, that EMI account remains disconcerting for its pacing. Emblazoned on the back cover were Berlioz’s metronome markings, and by basing his conception around them Norrington produced a succession of relentlessly localised events that actively resisted momentum, sweep and large-scale shaping. Four years later, John Eliot Gardiner (also employing period instruments) achieved textural interest similar to Norrington’s within a much more flexibly volatile conception; that version has become my favourite recording of the work. Norrington’s new recording – informed by his experience with period instruments without actually employing them – emulates the large-scale dramatic life Gardiner offers. Occasionally some of the brittle old metronomic ideology peeks through – bar 23 of the first movement doesn’t relax either quickly enough or convincingly, the dynamic low point of the finale (just before the gradual crescendo that culminates in the combined ‘Dies irae’ and ‘Ronde du sabbat’) goes structurally unparsed, and so on. The waltz movement is as graceful on this occasion as the ‘Marche au supplice’ is stodgy; wonderfully quiet string tremolos near the beginning of the ‘Scène aux champs’ do not compensate for the shallowly febrile character at the climax of the movement (a moment Gardiner endows with cataclysmic force). Whatever its shortcomings, however, on balance this performance is welcome for seeming more genuinely expressive than clinically experimental. David Breckbill

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