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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14 (1830)
Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71A (1892)
Cleveland Orchestra/Lorin Maazel
Recorded Ohio 1982 (Berlioz); 1981 (Tchaikovsky)
TELARC SACD-60650 [69:27]

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I assume Telarc have reissued these two recordings from around 24 years ago as a means of showing off SACD (Super Audio Compact Disc) sound. At the time of the recording sessions, the quality of detail captured could not be fully reproduced on conventional CD. You still need an SACD player to get the benefit but it is a fine recording that will be heard to good effect on a CD player.

It follows that the chosen pieces here are in the orchestral showpiece category. If you want a work to be given a dazzling, show-off rendering then I can think of few better partnerships than Lorin Maazel and The Cleveland Orchestra. Most showpieces that are played as such are of overture length and combine colourful orchestration and memorable tunes with an impression of technical difficulty that allows the orchestra to impress. Glinka’s popular Ruslan and Ludmilla is a good example. If used as a showpiece then the Symphonie Fantastique is unusual in that it is a full length work. But used as such it is. I have noticed that when orchestras hit the road on tour, particularly abroad and seeking to impress, then the music of Berlioz’s extraordinary work is a common item of luggage. The trouble with this is that playing the piece to the gallery, can be at the expense of the integrity and meaning of a work that is an intimate expression of extreme feelings in the context of a narrative that thrusts increasingly forward into the realms of tortured fantasy.

Lorin Maazel has many excellent qualities as a conductor but he is not famed for delving too far beneath the surface of a score. It could be argued that the Symphonie Fantastique is not a Mahler symphony and that there are not hidden spiritual depths to be plumbed. Nevertheless, there is interpretation to be done and for it to be done successfully it means taking a view of the score that derives from an understanding of Berlioz and the emotional turmoil that he is seeking to express. Maazel is more concerned with extracting a brilliant and disciplined sound from the orchestra. In doing so he can fail Berlioz’s intentions.

I will take a couple of examples. The main tune (idée fixe) represents Berlioz’s love object, the unattainable Harriet Smithson. At its first appearance it is a long, strangely asymmetrical melody that nevertheless has a kind of fluidity that combines beauty and passion. Underneath it, however, is an accompaniment of stabbing, nervous, irregularly placed chords suggesting the underlying agitation that often goes with such love yearnings. The tension of the contradiction needs to be brought out here if the music’s meaning is to be realised. Maazel plays the tune fast and immaculately but fails, in my opinion to realise its true nature, and at the same time, plays down the accompaniment thus losing the tension of the double mood. Shortly after the start of the last movement, the Witch’s Sabbath, the same tune appears almost unrecognisably, in a crazy mocking dance played by high clarinet with wild interpolations from the orchestra. There is something unhinged about this music and although Maazel and the Clevelanders play it with suitable virtuosity, the essential manic quality that the great Berlioz conductors achieve is simply not there. That quality is present in Igor Markevitch’s Orchestre Lamoureux DG recording of the same passage even though he takes it slower. Made over forty years ago it still sounds good. Among other Berlioz sympathisers that can be relied upon are Charles Dutoit, Colin Davis and Charles Munch.

So it’s superb playing in SACD sound (the blazing brass in the March to the Scaffold – taken very fast - particularly impresses) versus other versions that get nearer the Berlioz spirit. Over to you.

The Nutcracker Suite, as you might expect, fares a lot better, with brilliant, dancing playing.

Whatever may be said about Maazel’s interpretative mannerisms, he certainly gets orchestras to execute them perfectly. After witnessing Maazel conduct in London not long ago, a friend with me who was not a musician said afterwards, “I got the impression that if I were an orchestral player being conducted by Maazel, I’d know exactly what I was supposed to do”.

John Leeman


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