Hector Berlioz (1803 - 1869)
Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14
Aurelia Legay, soprano
Les Musiciens du Louvre
Members of Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Marc Minkowski, conductor
Live Recording: 12/2002, Paris
licensed from Deutsche Grammophon
A live Fantastique doesn’t challenge the best, but there is a welcome bonus
Recorded live, this characterful version of the Symphonie fantastique breaks new ground in bringing together the talented performers of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, using modern instruments, and wind-players from Marc Minkowski’s period orchestra, Les Musiciens du Louvre. Not that I would have noticed; there is no discrepancy between the two groups, and Minkowski, period specialist though he is, takes an unashamedly romantic view of Berlioz, generally preferring spacious speeds, strikingly different from Gardiner or Norrington in their period performances.
Minkowski takes this tendency to its extreme in the slow introduction with its self-conscious pauses. While he sustains his tempi remarkably well, never letting the music sag in the evocative sections of the 20-minute ‘Scène aux champs’, Sir Colin Davis – in all his versions – and Myung Whun Chung in another Paris recording from DG, make the music flow more easily, and just as expressively.
The dynamics of a live occasion have their own part to play, especially in the excitement of the final ‘Witches’ Sabbath’. Some listeners will find themselves jumping up to change volume levels, such is the dynamic range of DG’s all-embracing recording.
My reservations over the symphony disappear with Aurélia Legay’s dramatic reading of Herminie, the rare scène-lyrique. This was the second of Berlioz’s four entries for the Prix de Rome on a text from Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered. It makes an apt coupling: Berlioz uses the theme which later became the idée fixe of the symphony at key points in Herminie, including the work’s opening and its gentle close. It says much for both Legay’s warm, focused soprano and for Minkowski’s direction that the ear is drawn to moments which prefigure his supreme achievement, Les troyens.