A Symphonie Fantastique for the purists. It's as if conductor
Yannick Nézet-Séguin has turned a copy of the score upside down, given it a good strong
shake, and let all those years of Stokowskiisms, of over-dramatizing, of over-romantisizing, just fall
to the floor and get swept away. And after all, this is a symphonic work from 1830, and not 1885. It
was written before most of the composers who would introduce extra-musical ideals into their work
were even born.
The roots of this work by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) reach deep down into the
symphonic soil cultivated by Beethoven, but with a difference. Although the first movement is
structured in typical symphonic form, with first and second subjects, expostion, recapitulation, and so
on, it seems that the other movements are partly independent tone poems strewn together to form the
rest of the symphony. The only thing that holds that symphony together from start to finish, is the
inclusion, in every movement, of the leitmotif, or "idée fixe" introduced in the first
movement. This is probably what compelled Berlioz to impose the "program" or title of
"fantastique" to the symphony. And around that time, French fantastique
literature was very popular and acted as a counterpart to English gothic writers, such as
Poe and Wilde. Berlioz might have picked the subtitle because it was trendy, and not because he had
completely pre-determined the music's alter ego.
Seen in this context, Yannick Nézet-Séguin's approach could not be surpassed. He takes a clean,
focused, purely musical look at this work. The slow central movement in particular, the "Scène
aux champs", is pure refinement. He allows the innate character of the orchestration to do the
work, without undue emphasis where it's not called for. The trotting rhythm near the middle for
example is but one of the "less is more" moments found all over this interpretation. Even the distant
rolling thunder at the end remains musical and is not done for effect. The "March to the
Scaffold" which follows remains in character, and doesn't suddenly take on 50 extra pounds of
weight like most other recordings have you believe. Even the last movement, the "Dream of a
Witches' Sabbath" is viewed as a dream, a figment of the imagination, a supernatural event as
in the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, and not a demented, horror flick free for all with all cannons
blaring. It remains within the symphony's refined proportions, and brings the symphony to an
exciting conclusion without beating you over the head with exaggerated gestures.
The CD concludes with the dramatic cantata for voice and orchestra titled
Cléopâtre. Although composed as a submission for an exam to win
the Prix de Rome, it was not well received and seen as excessive and unusual for its time. Notice the
ending. It is nonetheless a very captivating work, especially when performed with as much expressive
conviction as in this recording by soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci.
Needless to say that this BIS recording displays their usual signature. The perfect
blend of transparency and power.