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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Lélio: Fantaisie dramatique sur la Tempête de Shakespeare, H.52 (1830/31) [14:34]
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14 (1830) [55:29]
Toronto Mendelssohn Choir,
Toronto Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto, Ontario, Canada; 20–22 September 2018. DDD/DSD.
Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf booklet from
Text and translation included.

To the best of my knowledge, only one other recording of the Symphonie fantastique adds the Tempest music from Lélio (RCA G010000267929D, download only, San Francisco SO/Michael Tilson Thomas, with Chœur des Ombres, also from Lélioreview). There are several 2-CD sets which offer the complete Lélio with the Symphonie, but I have never managed to come to terms with the whole of that strange follow-up. On the other hand, I enjoyed hearing the Tempest music as the prologue to the main work on the new Chandos recording. I’m especially pleased that it’s been placed first, rather than as an anti-climax after the symphony, which is such a remarkable piece that nothing should follow it. This section can easily stand alone from the rest of Lélio, having been conceived first as a concert overture with chorus, here with some fine singing to match the orchestral playing.

Recordings of the Symphonie fantastique there have been a-plenty. Three with the LSO and Sir Colin Davis culminated in one on the in-house label LSO Live (LSO0007, followed by Béatrice et Benédict Overture) and more recently Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra have offered further proof that Berlioz need not be the sole preserve of French orchestras (Harmonia Mundi HMC902244, rather oddly coupled with Rameau: Hippolyte et Aricie Suite placed first).

Simon Thompson started with scepticism about the Harmonia Mundi coupling and ended as a convert, making it a Recording of the Month – review. Though I was less convinced by the pairing, I was happy to enjoy both recordings in their own right; I thought that the Berlioz ‘combines the best of all [available] versions, with his Swedish players on modern instruments eschewing the plush sound that Beecham obtained from the RPO1 [Warner/EMI Masters 0851822, with Le Corsaire and Les Troyens Overtures and Royal Hunt and Storm] in favour of something much closer to what Immerseel obtains from his period performers’ (on Zig-Zag ZZT100101, with Le Carnaval Romain review Download Roundup May 2010, or budget-price 5-CD set ALPHA225).

Andrew Davis is also a fine interpreter of Berlioz; though I didn’t really engage with his Harold in Italy (CHSA5155 – DL News 2015/5) I much preferred it to Valery Gergiev’s LSO Live recording. Neither of those recordings quite captures the sheer energy of the wilder parts of Harold, and my touchstones for the Symphonie fantastique also concern the wilder sections, the March to the Scaffold and the Witches’ Sabbath. Somewhere in the back of my mind the benchmarks for these come from Colin Davis with the National Youth Orchestra at the Proms, but Beecham and Davis’s various recordings for Philips and LSO Live will do equally well.

After accomplished but not especially memorable accounts of the first three movements, Andrew Davis’s march takes over a minute longer than Beecham and even Klemperer2, but he gets a move on in the finale. It’s not just a matter of tempo, but I did think this march a little lacking in drama. Immerseel with his period players takes longer still – partly because, like Davis, he observes the repeat – but he captures the drama well.

I should add that I’ve seen one review where the writer found more drama in Andrew Davis’s March to the Scaffold than I did, so you may want to sample from a streaming service such as Naxos Music Library. The new Chandos Sabbath does capture the eeriness of the music. I’ve yet to hear a recording that fails to do so to some extent, but Davis comes pretty high on the list for this movement.

A stirring conclusion, then, to a performance which I enjoyed but didn’t think especially illuminating overall. If you like the idea of the Tempest music and if good high-definition sound, on SACD or 24-bit, is a priority, the new Chandos will do very well. Among high-def rivals, the LSO Live comes on SACD and in 24-bit and the inexpensive box set Berlioz Odyssey, which includes it, offers both SACD and CD versions (LSO0827 – review Winter 2019/2). If you have your heart’s content of versions of the Symphonie fantastique, the Tempest music can be downloaded on its own for around £4 in 16-bit lossless.

Shall I be returning to this Chandos recording? Andrew Davis gives us a very worthwhile account, but not one to alter existing recommendations. I think I’m still most likely when I want to hear the Symphonie fantastique to return to Beecham or one of the Colin Davis recordings – and for sheer excitement, albeit delivered at a slow pace, Jos van Immerseel, with his period Anima Eterna players, though I do wish they had not gone with Berlioz’ alternative thoughts and substituted the piano for the bells in the finale. The Chandos bells may be a little OTT, but they sure set the music in your face.

1 I’m surprised that no-one noticed my error: the overtures are played by the RPO but the symphony was recorded with the French National Radio Orchestra.

2 Still available in the very worthwhile budget-price 10-CD set of Romantic Symphonies and Overtures for around £30 (Warner 4043092).

Brian Wilson

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