Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique; Cléopâtre – scène lyrique

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WORKS: Symphonie Fantastique; Cléopâtre – scène lyrique
PERFORMER: Anna Caterina Antonacci (soprano); Rotterdam PO/Yannick Nézet-Séguin

With so many excellent Fantastiques already in the catalogue, one might well wonder why we need another. After first hearing this latest version, I wondered even more. Berlioz was only 26 when he wrote the work, yet Beecham at 80 (on EMI) or Stokowski at 86 (BBC Legends) both reflect the white-hot heat and coruscating energy of the composer’s youthful inspiration more thrillingly than does the 36-year-old French-Canadian, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (due to succeed Charles Dutoit as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra next year). 
But that is perhaps to think in clichés. Berlioz may have been young, and the most Romantically self-dramatising artist of his age, but he was also a classicist at heart, and a composer with an acute ear, whose every ‘effect’ was precisely calculated in terms of its orchestral realisation.
Listening again to this disc, one hears that what Nézet-Séguin offers (aided by a superlatively airy, open, yet richly resonant recording) is the orchestral equivalent of a Peter Hall staging – with a focus entirely on the text itself, not its extra-musical ‘narrative’, and with no whipped-up histrionics or hysteria, just apt tempos and pinpoint placing of each note and accent.
The same classical restraint and sonorous precision pay equal dividends in the orchestral contribution to the cantata Cléopâtre but sadly the whole thing is marred beyond repair by Anna Caterina Antonacci’s vulgarly melodramatic and rough-edged singing – more fishwife of Old Nile than proud daughter of the Ptolemies. Go instead for that grande tragédienne Véronique Gens (on Virgin) or Janet Baker’s heartfelt account from 1969 (EMI). Mark Pappenheim