October 18, 2007


Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam, conducted by Sir Colin Davis. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Stokowski: Symphonic Syntheses of Wagner—Das Rheingold: Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla; Tristan und Isolde: Symphonic Synthesis; Parsifal: Symphonic Synthesis from Act III; Die Walküre: Magic Fire Music, Ride of the Valkyries. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier. Naxos. $8.99.

      The idea that a recording from 1974 could sound as good as just about anything produced with equipment made 30 years later is a difficult one to believe, but PentaTone’s SACD release of Sir Colin Davis’ rendition of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, which dates to January 1974, shows that it is possible. PentaTone has remastered and is releasing in original four-channel form a number of recordings made by Philips in an astonishingly high-quality analog format that never caught on in the market at the time. In this particular case, the combination of the excellent original recording, the conductor’s attention to detail, and the still-amazing use of symphonic form by one of the great masters of orchestral color combine to produce a genuine sonic spectacular.

      No matter how many times you have heard Symphonie Fantastique, this SACD will be sonically revelatory. In the first movement, the very soft opening, the contrasts between piano and forte passages, the intensity of the sforzandi and the propulsive motion of the music in Davis’ well-chosen tempi add up to an experience both warm and exciting. The brass is exceptionally good – the Concertgebouw had the best brass section in the world in this era – and strings, winds and percussion are all outstanding as well. The second movement features superb harp clarity and a lovely waltz tempo, with a truly dizzying speedup to a swirling conclusion. In the third movement, the solitary winds are as impressive as the silences between their notes. The pacing lulls the listener, but angst clearly lurks just below the peaceful surface, as Davis makes sure that the timpani at the end sound like both an approaching thunderstorm and a foreshadowing of the “March to the Gallows” that is to follow. In that movement, the deep-throated timpani and snarling brass are highly dramatic – but the clarity of the bassoon line is equally impressive. The first section sounds positively eerie when its repeat begins, and Berlioz’ brilliant use of orchestral sonorities is as clear as it has ever been. The grotesqueries of the finale sound marvelous, too, with the winds very pointed from the start and the various instrumental outbursts having genuine shock value. The bells here are unusually reverberant – they sound like real church bells, not orchestral bells. And details not usually heard in this movement come through clearly – a brass accent here, a pizzicato there. The whole work builds to a frantic finish that is likely to leave a listener breathless. This is not a perfect recording – indeed, it has to be said that it often sounds better than it feels, being somewhat lacking in the depths of emotion that Berlioz was trying to plumb. But it is certainly a feast for the ears.

      The words “sonic spectacular” might have been invented for Leopold Stokowski, who was determined to deliver just that in the concert hall – and in recordings as well. The controversy over Stokowski’s arrangements of other composers’ music is certainly understandable when one realizes that he even changed the musical voicing and instrumental emphasis of that master of orchestration, Richard Wagner. How well Stokowski did it can be judged in José Serebrier’s third Naxos CD presenting his arrangements and transcriptions. There can scarcely be a better advocate for what Stokowski did than Serebrier, who worked with the older conductor for years and thoroughly understood his conducting and compositional methods. Many Wagner purists will likely be upset by this CD, but other listeners will likely be delighted – especially those who are not thoroughly familiar with the operas. For Das Rheingold, Stokowski adds even more brass and percussion to a concert version of the finale originally prepared by conductor Hermann Zumpe. For Tristan und Isolde, he creates a three-movement suite by using Wagner’s own concert version of the Prelude and Liebestod for the start and finish, and interpolating Liebesnacht music in the middle. This is a particularly effective piece, with Stokowski making changes with a light hand and Serebrier conducting with especially intense feeling.

      From Parsifal, Stokowski made an arrangement of crucial music from the final act, but excluded the Good Friday Spell that Wagner had already arranged in a concert version – resulting in an interesting but rather unbalanced piece, at least for those who know Wagner’s last opera. The most “Stokowskian” music here is in his two arrangements from Die Walküre. For the Magic Fire Music, he transfers vocal lines to individual instruments or whole sections; for Ride of the Valkyries, which one can argue is already quite noisy enough, Stokowski doubles some instruments and eliminates some lines so others can come through more strongly than Wagner planned. Indeed, except for the Tristan sections performed as Wagner wrote them, none of this music is entirely Wagnerian; but whether Stokowski had unforgivable hubris in making these arrangements, or was successful in adapting them to concert halls so more people could have a chance to hear them, each listener will have to judge on his or her own. Certainly the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra gives these works everything it has to give, and Serebrier’s intense, committed performances show that he, at least, has deep respect for what Stokowski wrought.

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