Magazine article Gramophone

Symphonie Fantastique

Magazine article Gramophone

Symphonie Fantastique

Article excerpt

Symphonie fantastique

Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique/John Eliot Gardiner

Philips 434 402-4PH (53 *DDD) or in The John Eliot Gardiner Collection (DG)

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In 1989 there appeared, in Roger Norrington's EMI version with the London Classical Players, the first performance of the Symphonie fantastique in modern times that came close to the sounds of Berlioz s orchestra. Though this did not, of course, invalidate performances by our own contemporary orchestras, it did reveal a huge amount that could otherwise only be guessed at. In the brass section alone, it was revelatory to hear the effect of correctly stopped horns, differently crooked instruments, valveless trumpets adjacent to cornets a pistons, and narrow-bore trombones, not to mention the fearful ophicleide, together substituting (as Norrington wrote) for the habitual blare of a Berlioz brass section 'a kaleidoscope of colours'. Norrington's performance was vital, sensitive and exciting, building an interpretation on the sounds of his players and not resting on them. Now he is joined by another fine Berliozian, John Eliot Gardiner.

In his preface, Gardiner'sets out the issues again, and claims to 'recreate as closely as the available documentation permits the sound and atmosphere of the first performance . The essential documentation is contained in Nicholas Temperley's edition of the score for the New Berlioz Edition, where he points out that a definitive version is not possible since different sources show changes. One such change is the cornet obbligato in the waltz, which certainly did not feature in the first performance: Gardiner includes this surely impermanent after thought of Berlioz s, Norrington not. One may also point out that the instruments of Gardiner's orchestra, wind and brass very properly identified in the booklet, are often of later date than the symphony, even when they are not modern reproductions.

Nevertheless, even if we have here only an approximation to the sounds of the first performance, that is a good starting point. Gardiner's performance is in some ways sharper than Norrington s, and more insistent on detail. This can lead to over-phrasing, though he does almost nothing that cannot be justified from Berlioz s intricately, often oddly, marked score (a small misjudgement is the anticipation of a rallentando in the Ball, at 4'11"). …

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