Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique

Some remarks on the history of the interpretations

by Hugo Röling

There must be hundreds of recordings of the fantastique on lp or CD, let alone what is stored in the archives of radio stations all over the world. To compare different executions of this music is a fascinating experience, as almost every conductor brings out different details of this immensely rich score.

I'm aware of the existence of almost 200 recordings and at this moment (27.7.2002) I am the happy owner of 151 versions on lp and CD, not counting some tapes and two video from radiobroadcasts. Listening to them I try to get at the secrets of this wonderful music that I must have heard more than a thousand times by now, but which never disappoints me.

If there were no hundreds of splendid ways to play the fantastique, it would make no sense to to collect as many recordings as one can find, but of course one develops preferences. I put my recommendations in this order.

Berlioz par Nadar (photo)


Pierre Monteux

Nearest to what I guess Berlioz' own version could have sounded is Pierre Monteux. Here is control, clarity and no nonsense. Subtle changes in tempo and emphasis bring the music to life and makes it dramatic as it must have been meant. He is in the spirit of the master, who said a good conductor must dispose of a warm heart and an icecold head. Monteux himself liked his first recording with the Orchestre de Paris from 1931 best. The playing is fantastic indeed, but the sound is very poor, so this disc can probably only be appreciated by those who know the music well, but then it is a must. The RCA 1945 recording with the San Francisco Symphony seems to have been the first version on lp. His concert in february 1964 with the NDR Hamburg is a stunning testament. He died at 89 only two months later. But his last recordings are not the best by Monteux: one hears his intentions, but the execution is far from flawless. Let us not idealize, as did the French critics who awarded to the Vienna and Hamburg recordings prestigious gramophone-prizes. I hope I will not be suspected of chauvinism when I put the Concertgebouw at the head of my recommendations:

But there are times when I think Monteux's reading is rather flat, too straight. Does he really get to the bottom of this complicated score?

Colin Davis

For more depth one turns to Colin Davis. Thoughtful, forceful, detailed, but breathing naturally at the same time. Davis brings out things one hears with few conductors. He never sacrifices a passage to make sure some effectful moment comes out, everything is in balance.

Differences are relatively small, but Davis is better every time. A WARNING is in place: Sir Colins singing career has been gaining momentum over the years and all but spoils his latest.

And then a national stereotype applies: there are moments when Davis seems too flegmatic. Does he get at the maximum of effect? Does he produce enough shere exitement?

Charles Munch

For sensation Charles Munch is indispensable. He subordinates everything to the goal of attaining the greatest "effect". All his recordings are full of shameless stops and starts, the score looks like a racetrack and sometimes Munch spectacularly misses a turn. There is a great differenced in atmosphere between Munch's studio recordings and the live concerts.

In his live recordings Munch is even more extreme than in the studio, with breathtaking results. But in concert he permitted himself a cut in the Scène aux champs (measures 154 - 171). He is the only conductor who does so and in my opinion it is an incomprehensible amputation at the moment the music comes to rest after the storm.

Basic tempi are slower than elswhere which brings out the fluctuations in a almost charicatural way. In the video with the orchestra of Radio Canada (1963) the quality of the playing is less. The podium is divided in parts to allow the heavy TV camera's of that period to catch the indiviual musicians, but the distance between the conductor and the orchestra is too great, Munch is waving at times helplessly it seems. But why did Munch deny his Portuguese, Canadian and Hungarian listeners those approximately minute and a half ?

Bruno Walter

Maybe unexpected after these generally appreciated Berliozians is Bruno Walter, who mentioned in his recollections the tremendous example of Gustav Mahlers fantastique. In Paris in 1939 and in New York in 1954 as well the tension is masterly and compelling. Walter is even sensational but without excentricity (as is Munch).

Ex aequo

Igor Markevitch Masterly in part I subtly moving. 1: radio Berlin 1952 2: Lamoureux 1960 3: BPh 1953. Markevitch favoured an extremely slow tempo in the Songe that makes him miss the point in my opinion.

Very special recordings are too:

Argenta 1955 : full of controlled tension

Scherchen 1953 : tough, even harsh at times.

Rozjdestwensky. Loves this piece. (1: Leningrad 1971 [live in London, atrocious coughing meticuously recorded by the BBC drowning subtle strings, but the orchestra is tremendous] 2: Radio Moscow/BolshoiO 1962 3:O Ministery of Culture USSR 1988 [live, idiotic recording which makes you think you are sitting in the first flutists lap, but R does beautiful things] 4: Stockholm 1991 [light is out I'm afraid])

Martinon 1973 : Thoughtful and controlled, even cautious. Seems not 'french' as a consequence, but breating naturally.

Solti 1972 and 1992 : Solid, forceful and full of tension.

Stokowski 1968 and 1969 : Maybe one succumbs after 100 fantastiques to a fully excentric opinion, just because he does so many things quite differently from what you are used to. Often accents not called for in the score, but many lucky findings among them. I insist this is a breathtaking reading at times.

Plus too : Arvid Jansons, Koussevitsky, Kubelik, Mitropoulos.

Good recordings from the digital era

Barenboim 1995. Heavy, but he knows what he is aiming at.

Bychkow 1993

Chalmeau. Surprisingly fresh and energetic.The 'new' score produces some passages that sound very different from the [trusted] notes but are not of lasting interest.

Chung 1993. I saw quite a few misgiving reviews, but in my ears good in the French tradition (clear, fast, light), moves well.

J-E. Gardiner 1991. Flat, mechanical, but consequent and lovingly done as well. One hears he is really convinced that the sound must be this reticent. In general I think the 'authentic' movement is a misunderstanding were Berlioz is concerned: the composers writings testify to a life long search for new possibilities in the orchestra so there is no reason to go back to the orchestral sound he tried to enhance.

Mariss Jansons 1991. Conspicuously good playing after disappointing Rêveries & passions. Clear, but not mechanical, as most contemporary recordings are.

Riccardo Muti 1985

The great surprise to come no doubt in the Berlioz year 2003 : Valery Gergiev and Simon Rattle, who for Dutch audiences both demonstrated their very distinguished opinions on the fantastique with the Rotterdam Philharmonic in the past years. Great concerts. Watch out for them !

It is difficult not to underestimate the conductors who avoid showing off their monumental ego: in comparison with others they seem to lack personality. They do little surprising things, but their loyalty to the score must be ackowledged. Jean Fournet may be the conductor who would have been appreciated most by Berlioz himself, if Rimsy Korsakoff was right with his remark on the surprisingly austere execution of the fantastique in St Petersburg in 186[7]?.

Then there are the splendid performances marrred by one disappointing movement : André Cluytens (weak Marche aux supplices)

Alternating impressions

Otto Klemperer, teutonic, but special. For admirers of Colin Davis who want even more depth. And if you can stomach this try Kempe or Haitink.

John Barbirolli. moves subtly, has intense atmosphere, but is dull at times. Innig, bewegelijk, bouwt op en laat los, maar ook vaak te saai. In deel III aan de plechtige kant. (1:1959, 2:1947)

Leonard Bernstein,

Lorin Maazel.

In my opinion overrated

Abbado (does not come to life, but remember the remark on Fournet)

Beecham (fastish, flutters too much. Orchestral discipline failing. Wat we in Nederland noemen: met de Franse slag)

Boulez (sterile, stupid, mechanical. Cleveland recording seems better than LSO 1967, but in the end is as dull. Boulez did not repeat the tempo zero experiment in the Marche: full 6' in 1967, where most conductors take about 4'30)

Dutoit (too much one tempo, no life, but remember the remark on Fournet)

Levine (moves too little, but remember the remark on Fournet)

Lombard (no control)

Norrington (authentic: relentlessly playing down of all effect)

Who comes closest to perfect murder : Paray ? (in Rêveries & passions ) Fourestier ? (in Scène aux champs ) They destroy the music by desastrously high tempi. But when it comes to bringing it to a complete stop by slowing down Temirkanow (Rêveries & passions) and Batiz (Scène aux champs) are close to absolute catastrophy. But then: the slow Rêveries & passions have good moments. Kegel is defenitely excentric, but not ugly. Temirkanow has pretty idiotic starts and even more staggering stops, but is interesting.

Who are just dull ? Kosler, Menuhin, Previn.

Hugo Röling

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