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Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, etc

Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth (Harmonia Mundi)

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

Symphonie fantastique; Les francs-juges Overture
Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
Harmonia Mundi HMM 902644   65:49 mins

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This superb recording further confirms, if it were necessary, that performing such music with contemporary instruments, gut strings and no vibrato anywhere is far more than an exercise in scholarship. What the result may lack in weight and density is more than made up for by the gain in clarity and élan. François-Xavier Roth is particularly attentive to the latter, not stinting on the sforzandos. The acoustic, with an echo of around three seconds, is warm but not obtrusive.

For me, the high point comes in the central ‘Scène aux champs’. The pacing and phrasing here are immaculate: we are given unmistakably the mixture of hope and fear Berlioz identifies in his programme note. Here too the contemporary instruments come into their own, especially the oboe from around 1830 and the cor anglais from 1840. One rarely hears such a sharp contrast between the two, which obviously plays into their opening ‘echo duet’, giving us a sonic picture of the hero’s divided mind.

The Francs-juges overture is one of Berlioz’s more extreme productions. Apart from the well-known theme, from the same family as the Symphony’s idée fixe, there are any number of extraordinary moments, often intensified by what I have described (not to universal applause) as Berlioz’s ‘flashy’ orchestration, to which Roth gives full value. I hear these moments, not so much as contributions to the argument, more as tests to make sure we the audience are still awake. But I wouldn’t be without them for the world.

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Roger Nichols