BERLIOZ Symphonie Fantastique
This concert recording of the ‘Episode in the Life of an Artist’ and its lesser-known sequel has repeats in the Symphonie fantastique and even the (here audibly) distancing scrim that Berlioz asked be placed in front of the orchestra for most of Lélio. The Symphonie itself, however – precisely drilled and realised by Muti at the start of his music directorship of the orchestra five years ago – lacks the sheer attack that his younger self brought, for example, to the bold orchestration of early Verdi.
The mellower Muti seems to want pure music, not the messier, dirtier programmatic colours of early Romantics. The ‘Ball’ and ‘March to the Scaffold’ lack atmosphere in their sheer straightness, although the wind dialogues in ‘Scene in the Country’ are expertly structured. Even those slippery basses in ‘Night of the Sabbath’ and the military band winds in the ‘March’ are heard primarily as sophisticated contributions from virtuoso orchestral sections. Their problems are solved, their novelty rather blunted in this smooth, efficient play-through at marginally more relaxed tempi than the Philadelphia Orchestra on Muti’s earlier recording (Warner, 7/85). If your aural imagination hasn’t been shaken and stirred by the historically informed work of Minkowski, Gardiner or Norrington into wanting a richer kaleidoscope of sound and tempi, you may well be satisfied by the level of performance here. Yet Beecham, Bernstein, Boulez, Colin Davis, Klemperer or Markevitch all have better-defined things to say with modern instruments too.
The six musical scenes of Lélio contain some first-grade Berlioz, not least the ‘Tempest Fantasy’ which, but for the expense of its chorus, could be as much of a concert item as his other overtures, and the ‘Chorus of Shades’, a dramatic funeral dirge with evident influence on Wagner and Mahler. Berlioz’s experimental vision in Lélio is reaching out to Wagner’s: opera as the final goal of music.
Like Boulez’s 1967 Sony recording – still the most important rival – Muti goes straight to the top in his casting of the narrator, opposing Gérard Depardieu to the French maestro’s Jean-Louis Barrault. As we know from his Cyrano, Depardieu can ‘do’ classical as well as his predecessor – and can also be frighteningly and movingly loud – but is generally more of a people’s hero than the cultured Barrault. An outstanding performance. And Muti weighs up the musical contributions very neatly, never overpowering the intentionally slight nor attempting to tidy up the piece’s deliberately throwing six different pots of paint (seven, if you include the narration) at a single canvas. A worthy performance of Lélio. Would that the Symphonie fantastique were wilder.