Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique; Le carnaval romain

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WORKS: Symphonie fantastique; Le carnaval romain
PERFORMER: Anima Eterna Brugge/Jos van Immerseel


It is hard to think of a composer who benefits more from period instruments than Berlioz. Even in early works, such as those here, he transformed the precision with which composers thought about timbre.

The use of raucous ophicleides rather than tubas in the Symphonie fantastique to blow raspberries at the hero on the way to the scaffold is just one amidst many examples of how using the instruments Berlioz knew brings his intoxicated imaginings even more vividly to life.

Surprisingly, this new account from Jos van Immerseel and Anima Eterna Brugge is the first historically informed recording of Symphonie fantastique since the pioneering versions by Roger Norrington (EMI, 1989) and John Eliot Gardiner (Philips, 1993).

The talking point on the newcomer is the use of grand pianos rather than bells to toll the funeral knell in the ‘Witches’ Sabbath’. Immerseel makes a reasonably convincing case for them, though overlooks Hugh Macdonald’s observation that deep bells were not uncommon to opera house audiences of the time.

Even if bells were unavailable, this raises the philosophical point of whether the aim is to hear, as best as possible, what Berlioz would have heard, or what he would have liked to hear.


Ultimately, though, such debates only matter if the performances are convincing, and, for once, Immerseel is decidedly off the boil in both works. There is a trudge to the scaffold, and, pianos aside, the Witches’ Sabbath is a decidedly genteel affair when set alongside Gardiner, or any of Colin Davis’s versions. Christopher Dingle