Berlioz, Poulenc

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Berlioz,Poulenc
WORKS: Symphonie fantastique
PERFORMER: Royal Liverpool PO/Junichi Hirokami
On a spectrum from soberly faithful to emptily virtuosic, in which neither extreme does justice to Berlioz’s dynamic shading and bold invocation of the theatrical and grotesque, Hirokami’s performance lies near the sober end. It probably worked better in the concert hall (the recorded applause sounds enthusiastic), but on disc it must take its chance among many competent performances. Commendable fidelity in tempi, and in taking repeats, is spoiled by caution in dynamic nuances. Setting my equipment to hear the quiet openings of each movement, I would expect the tuttis to be ear-splitting, but they are not. Berlioz’s dynamic range is all too often compressed in this way. Here the general recording level seems remarkably low; because of this, or an excessively dry acoustic, the sound lacks the vitality one hopes for in live recordings. The big-boned performance by Tilson Thomas, or one of Colin Davis’s recordings, capture more of Berlioz’s sparkle and nervous excitement. Altogether, the new version seems literal, restrained, English and lacking in atmosphere. The booklet notes – which are exceptionally good – include an account of the church bells used in the finale, but they are still too high to match Berlioz’s specifications. Poulenc’s sprightly ballet suite Les biches is more suited to the acoustic and the conductor’s style; this crisp performance is worth having. And the Berlioz is not bad, if one accepts – which I cannot – that dynamics have to be compressed for listeners in noisy cars, trains, or using computers. Julian Rushton