ESSENTIAL RECORDINGS
HECTOR BERLIOZ - Symphonie Fantastique


HECTOR BERLIOZ - Symphonie Fantastique - Cléopâtre - Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Conductor) - Anna Caterina Antonacci (Soprano) - Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra - Hybrid SACD - 7318599918006 - Released: February 2011 - BIS SACD1800

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.

Jean-Yves Duperron - February 2011