Riccardo Muti conducts Berlioz’s ‘Symphonie fantastique’

'The fantastical element only arrives with Depardieu'

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COMPOSERS: Berlioz
LABELS: CSO Resound
ALBUM TITLE: Berlioz
WORKS: Symphonie fantastique; Lélio
PERFORMER: Gérard Depardieu (narrator), Mario Zeffiri (tenor), Kyle Ketelsen
CATALOGUE NO: CSO Resound CSOR 901 1501

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Berlioz would no doubt be deeply frustrated that while Symphonie fantastique is ubiquitous in concert schedules, its musical and dramatic partner, Lélio, is a rarity. The reasons are easy to surmise. Although the former requires an extensive orchestra, it still functions as a recognisable musical unity, albeit taking the symphony in a more extraordinary direction than anything envisaged by even Beethoven. Lélio, by contrast, is unclassifiable. It has lengthy passages of narration, the first music involves just voice and piano, yet it eventually requires large orchestra and chorus. Nonetheless, hearing the two works together significantly enriches both.

If the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Riccardo Muti were not attraction enough, Gérard Depardieu is the narrator for Lélio, perfect casting for Belioz’s alter ego as he blearily awakens from the opium-induced excess of the Symphonie. It is a pity this is not a DVD, given that some of the audible reaction from the audience is prompted visually, while the cutting of applause from a palpably live performance is odd.

Musically, Muti extracts polished and nuanced playing from the CSO, ‘La harpe éolienne’ being especially exquisite, while tenor Mario Zeffiri is wonderfully limpid in ‘Le pecheur’. There is much to admire in both works, yet the final two movements of the Symphonie are a little tame. Muti pushes the tempo, and the lower brass is suitably brash, but the fantastical element only arrives with Depardieu.

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Christopher Dingle