BERLIOZ Symphonie Fantastique
At first sight it seems strange that LSO Live should be revisiting this repertoire after the remarkable success of a Berlioz series with Sir Colin Davis which not only raised the label’s international profile but may even be seen to have changed the nature of the record industry. That said, Davis’s oft-praised LSO Live account of the Symphonie fantastique was made as long ago as September 2000. Nor should we forget that Gergiev’s enthusiasm for Berlioz predates his involvement with the LSO. Philips recorded a Gergiev Symphonie fantastique with the Vienna Philharmonic in 2003 having previously taped their third (!) Davis version, with the same orchestra, in 1991.
Gergiev is more generous with repeats these days and this new package is more bountiful in other respects too. The conventional jewel-case houses two discs: the now customary hybrid SACD plus a novel Blu ray disc containing both a Pure Audio audiophile alternative and a complete filmed performance of the main work (the rendition of November 14, 2013). Despite relatively limited camera angles, there are plentiful close-ups of the toothpick-wielding maestro, more selective views of his players (including the antiphonally placed violins) and a taste of the concluding applause otherwise excluded. Absent from all formats is the platform protest preceding the earlier of the two Barbican Hall dates credited as providing source material for the audio versions. The conductor is a controversial figure these days, although rarely for the right reasons.
What matters here is that this live recording preserves personalised music-making of real distinction. If the opening movements feel a little undercooked, Gergiev’s distinctive brand of theatrical intensity builds as the narrative unfolds. The ‘Scene in the Country’ features much uncommonly sensitive woodwind phrasing, while the ‘March to the Scaffold’ moves forwards quite swiftly but with rigour and menace. Bar for bar, the ‘Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath’ is certainly more viscerally exciting and driven than Sir Colin’s. Whether it provides the same kind of symphonic inevitability and/or dreamy poetic truth is of course a moot point but you don’t turn to Gergiev for the finer points. The Waverley Overture is similarly rousing. With the LSO in such fine fettle, the only disincentive is the airless acoustic typical of its home base. My advice would be: play loud or not at all.