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Berlioz : Symphonie Fantastique
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Hector Berlioz était-il le plus grand compositeur français du XIXe siècle ? Fait-il partie de la cohorte de génies ignorés de leur vivant ? Plus d'un siècle après sa disparition, on continue de vénérer et fêter ce grand monsieur de la musique française trop longtemps injustement laissé pour compte. C'est, curieusement, grâce au travail de chefs étrangers (Colin Davis, John Eliot Gardiner) que Hector Berlioz est revenu petit à petit au goût du jour. Gardiner sait nous transmettre tout le brio, la joie, l'allégresse de cette Symphonie fantastique aujourd'hui (enfin) entrée au répertoire de tous les plus grands orchestres. Entre lyrisme tout romantique et folie orchestrale propre à Berlioz, cette partition, symbole du style «berliozien» fait d'intelligibilité, de joie et, surtout, d'un savoir-faire orchestral hors du commun, nous apparaît comme une des grandes oeuvres du XIXe siècle. Cette «french touch» est remarquablement servie par le plus français des chef anglais : sir John Eliot Gardiner ! --Jeanne Semprin
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Les instruments moins puissants et l'effectif réduit permet un gain en clarté et transparence, caractères parfois perdus avec les puissants orchestres symphoniques modernes. Il pousse le souci de reconstitution en enregistrant la symphonie Fantastique dans la salle du conservatoire de Paris et en adoptant la disposition en usage lors de sa création en 1830.
Ce qui aurait pu n'être qu'un exercice musicologique sera une réussite artistique totale. Appliquant l'agilité du phrasé maîtrisée dans la musique vocale et baroque, la musique retrouve jeunesse et fougue telles que Berlioz l'aurait sans doute souhaitées.
Roger Norrington l'avait précédé à sa manière trois ans auparavant.
Ainsi, Dans "un bal", l'orchestre se pare de mille feux crépusculaires. Le jeu des instruments bicentenaires est d'une fraîcheur et d'un équilibre sans égal, concertant et sans aucune lourdeur. Berlioz n'a pas écrit un traité d'orchestration renommé pour rien.
Pareillement, dans "songe d'une nuit de sabbat", nos joyeuses sorcières partent sur un plan diablerie. Monstrueuses et difformes, surgies d'un tableau de Goya, elles sautillent, se chamaillent, pressées d'atteindre leur lieu de culte maléfique. Il fallait vraiment Sir John pour instiller une pincée d'humour anglais dans ce sabbat sous stupéfiants. Le discours s'épanouit en Requiem désinvolte des cuivres et des pizzicati ! Éblouissant de verve sarcastique jusqu'à la coda plus exaltée que furieuse.
Une interprétations qui nous rappelle que Berlioz n'a que 27 ans... Bien entendu, Munch et sa violence contrôlée à Boston ou encore la vitalité de Monteux a San Francisco et l'élégance de Colin Davis à Londres restent des monuments.
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The symphony was written just three years after Beethoven's death, and in this account, it struck me as a kind of commentary, not on Beethoven himself, but on the possibilities of thematic transformation that Beethoven's essentially classical manners didn't pursue, even though his music points beyond classical manners to . . . what? Schubert and Brahms, to be sure -- but also to the degree of thematic transformation that a non-German composer like Berlioz feels freer to experiment with? One wonders what Beethoven would have thought of it, had he lived just a bit longer and managed to hear a performance. The slow movement seems to play with the Pastoral Symphony, and the final movement with the Seventh's finale -- and I mean "play with." The "program" suggests something dire and sick, but the music has energy, humor, and high spirits in much of its development. It's closer in spirit, I think, to "Tam O' Shanter" than to "Young Goodman Brown." Just a great recording.
That Frenchman was of course Hector Berlioz, and his work that received its premiere on December 5, 1830 was his Symphonie fantastique. And, if you had been one of the concertgoers at this premiere, as you proceeded to your seat, you would take in the vista of an orchestra whose likes (and size) you had never seen before, one with four harps across the front, a battery of timpani arrayed across the rear, and, as well, a number of woodwind and brass instruments never before seen in such an ensemble. An unusually young man with an unruly mop of red hair would take the podium, thence to lead the orchestra in a near-hour-long work that would affect the course of musical history for a century to come. The work would be an instant success, and young Berlioz, unruly red mop and all, would become an overnight celebrity as a result.
What John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique have endeavored to do in this recording is nothing less than to recapture the excitement of that premiere, right down to details such as the actual performance venue and the incorporation of period instruments used by Berlioz then but seldom since. This is as close as one could possibly come to recreating that evening, and the recreation is a splendid, even smashing, success.
Listening to this recording is - for me, anyway - almost like hearing the work for the first time. Certainly, it is the first time the work has sounded so fresh, and not the battered old war horse that we're used to hearing, both in concert and on recordings. While the freshness (and the clarity) are there from the get-go, the real differences begin to show up in the second movement, "Un bal," where four harps (for which Berlioz wrote in a new style not heard before) are arrayed across the front of the orchestra, with the recording perfectly capturing the horizontal space they occupy. Later in this movement, it is easy to pick out the unique timbre of the cornet a piston as being readily distinct from the valveless trumpets also in the Berlioz orchestra. (This is somewhat of an anomaly, but an excusable one, since the instrument only became available sometime before Berlioz revised the work after this premiere performance.)
The third movement - "Scene aux champs" - adds an aspect of three-dimensional depth, with its English horn in the foreground echoed by the oboe nicely placed in the background. At the end of this movement, so obviously a tribute to Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony which Berlioz had heard for the first time just the previous year, the battery of timpani arrayed across the full rear of the orchestra give a splendid sense of distant thunder.
But it is in the last two movements where the original Berlioz intentions, as recreated by Gardiner, are best realized, particularly with the snarl and buzz coming from the ophicleide and serpent (later replaced by the bass tuba, but not with nearly as exciting an effect), and the slimey , penetrating bite of the E-flat sopranino clarinet. As well, the bells that Gardiner has at hand for the "Dies Irae" section of the final movement are appropriately ominous in their sonority. The performance ends in a glorious rush, resplendent in its brass textures owing to Gardiner's choice of period instruments.
In point of fact, much of the instrumental texture heard in these two movements, as well as Berlioz's use of the cornet in the second movement, is owed to his willingness to "borrow" instruments commonly used in military bands of the time but not in symphony orchestras. In the main, this was a practice not picked up by subsequent composers, but Gustav Mahler for one had a similar approach to instrumentation (and in fact was an ardent admirer of this Berlioz work).
We hear the work differently these days. Modern instrument construction provides a wider dynamic range, brighter timbres and more certain intonation (although Gardiner's musicians have no intonation problems whatsoever). The newcomer to Gardiner's recreation might at first think this approach to be on the subdued side, on account of the smaller absolute range of dynamic possibilities with period instruments. But the range of instrumental textures these period instruments achieve comes across as wider and more distinctive, rather than the more homogenized and "standardized" timbres we've become acclimated to: the timbral range more than makes up for any - and mostly inconsequential - reduction in dynamic range.
Heard in this freshly-reconstructed period-instrument light, the Symphonie fantastique is a marvel of clarity and originality, in my opinion superior in its dramatic and poetic impact over the later-revised version that Berlioz was to produce, mainly to deal with the exigencies and economics of performance practice and period instrument availability. If you are to have as few as two recordings of this work, this needs to be one of those two.
Happy anniversary, Louis-Hector Berlioz, for this breakthrough work!
At the helm is Gardiner, who has a powerful personality. His performance is good, better to my ears than another earlier one conducted by an English conductor, who plays it more academically. This one is sure-footed. The orchestra sounds both excited and plays well, not always something to take for granted in original instruments performances.
The strings use portamento at times, the sliding up and down adding what to some ears will be strange, but it was how they used to play this. There are some very old recordings that likely feature a similar effect. I think it adds to the appeal.
Other reviewers have identified the audio as being closed, boxy or lacking reverberation. It is true that the hall is not particularly live sounding, but that is where it was performed. The surface gloss of reverberation is attractive or concert hall designers would not have purposefully built halls with it. Many, particularly British, sound engineers seek out churches just due to their very live surfaces. And this recording does not have such a sound.
This recording has a very honest sound, one that grows on me as I listen to it. It was made by a famous (in classical sound circles) sound engineer named Onno Scholze. Mr. Scholze (who passed away in 2012)favored a very simple miking technique using two microphones in position just in front of the orchestra. This microphone placement gives the most natural reverberation a hall produces. Mr. Scholze, who was known to once remove a fence outside the concert hall he was convinced was adding a resonance to the recording, was not known for sloppy or casual recording technique. Knowing this was the sound he felt best represented this orchestra in this space, I gave it a good listen, also adjusting the playback levels as I did. I think on a good stereo this recording can be made to sound startlingly lifelike. The dynamics Berlioz wrote into it, that Gardiner obeys, are transmitted to the listener. The entrance of the bells is truly shocking. The harps all playing together is enchanting.
What this recording is is truly different. Most recordings of this piece offer the dynamics but are smoothed over by the reverberation added hopefully by playing it in a large hall or church. While that is fine, there is something extra fine about hearing it as the first listeners did. I recommend it.