August 29, 2019


Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique; Lélio, ou le Retour à la Vie. Cyrille Dubois, tenor; Florian Sempey, baritone; Ingrid Marsoner, piano; Jean-Philippe Lafont, narrator; Wiener Singverein and Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Philippe Jordan. Wiener Symphoniker. $29.99 (2 CDs).

Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique; from Lélio—Fantaisie sur la Tempête de Shakespeare. Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and Toronto Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

     The first capital-R Romantic symphony and arguably the most capital-R Romantic of them all, Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique has exercised an enduring fascination on listeners – even ones who do not listen to a great deal of classical music – for nearly 200 years. It is a symphony that tells a story, one that is well-known to classical-music lovers and not difficult to explain to those less familiar with the field: despondent over a desperately desired woman who is unresponsive to his feelings, a man takes opium for solace and has a series of increasingly bizarre hallucinations that lead to one of him killing his “immortal beloved,” then being executed for the crime, and at the end seeing her spirit after death in a wild Witches’ Sabbath. That is a one-sentence summation of a nearly-hour-long work of extraordinary brilliance of conception and orchestration, a piece that encapsulates Berlioz’ amazing way with instrumentation as well as what appears to have been his lifelong extremely overdone emotional state. The best performances of Symphonie fantastique move this five-movement tour de force steadily from dream to nightmare, using the musical structure, as well as the celebrated idée fixe representing the artist’s beloved, to hold together a work that constantly threatens to burst the bounds of symphonic form (and, it could be argued, did in fact burst them). Philippe Jordan gets the approach to Symphonie fantastique just right in a live recording with the Wiener Symphoniker on the orchestra’s own label. The five-minute start of the symphony, before the appearance of the idée fixe, often seems a throwaway that does not quite fit the rest of the symphony, but Jordan accurately handles it as a setup for all that comes later, showing the meandering life and thoughts of the protagonist and the way they eventually settle on his beloved and then become obsessed with her. Berlioz subtitled the symphony Épisode de la vie d’un artiste, “Episode in the life of an artist,” and that is how Jordan treats it, pacing each early movement appropriately – the second, Un bal, waltzes along particularly well in a dreamlike way – and then building the Marche au supplice effectively to the climactic descent of the guillotine. The final Songe d’une nuit du Sabbat here sounds as if it is barely kept under control, and that is exactly right: this is music on the edge of madness and ought to come across that way.

     But this Épisode, which is Berlioz’ Op. 14, does not end with the drama that concludes Symphonie fantastique. Berlioz conceived the symphony as part of an entire evening’s theatrical presentation, to be succeeded by his Op. 14b, Lélio, ou Le retour à la vie. This is a much harder work to put across for modern audiences, because its form is a now-archaic blend of stage presentation and music – Berlioz labeled it Monodrame lyrique – and it is, by design, completely episodic, using mostly music that Berlioz wrote before Symphonie fantastique to provide further illumination of the troubled artist’s life. Lélio opens right after the opium dreams of Songe d’une nuit du Sabbat, with the artist exclaiming with some surprise that he is still alive. And then the work – as long as the symphony but with much less music in it – proceeds to reflect the central character’s disordered mind and his hyper-Romantic attempts to bring his thoughts and feelings far enough under control so he can continue to live, since it seems that Death is not yet ready to claim him. The sections of Lélio show, again and again, just how innovative Berlioz was both musically and theatrically, including everything from a piano integrated into the orchestra (an entirely new concept) to musicians playing offstage to a conclusion in which Lélio, the narrator, comments on musical performance and then compliments the singers and players on how well they have done – a fascinating instance of “metamusic” and “metatheater.” The thread that runs through Lélio is Shakespeare, with the narrator musing again and again on Shakespeare’s genius and eventually, climactically, having his “students” present a Fantaisie sur la Tempête de Shakespeare that is “by” Lélio but of course actually by Berlioz, bringing “meta” matters to a head. The Shakespeare connection ties directly, biographically, to the impetus for composition of both Lélio and Symphonie fantastique, since they were written after Berlioz became entranced (that is not too strong a word) by Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson. But even without knowing that element of Berlioz’ life, it is possible to see the unifying effect that the Shakespeare references have on Lélio and the dramatic appropriateness of its final fantasy, which is the work’s longest section by far. A first-class narrator is an absolute necessity to hold Lélio together, and Jean-Philippe Lafont does a fine job for Jordan and the Wiener Symphoniker, while the solo singers and excellent Wiener Singverein make this performance a thoroughly satisfying one. Lélio is an oddity and a difficult work to make convincing without a thorough understanding of and immersion in its autobiographical intensity, but Jordan handles it with aplomb and, by skillfully bringing forth its mingling of bits of Symphonie fantastique (including the idée fixe) with material created specifically for the Monodrame lyrique, offers listeners a genuinely involving theatrical experience in addition to a very satisfying musical one.

     Matters are not quite as satisfactory on a new Chandos release featuring Symphonie fantastique as interpreted by Sir Andrew Davis and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. The sheer sound quality of this SACD is superb, but the disc as a whole shows the difficulty of treating Symphonie fantastique as “just” a symphony: Davis is simply too well-mannered, too unwilling to cut loose as the bizarrerie increases, for this to be a wholly satisfying performance. All the elements are certainly there, including some fine sectional playing from the Toronto ensemble (which, however, is not at the level of the Wiener Symphoniker, which is one of the world’s best-sounding orchestras). Davis shapes everything in Symphonie fantastique with care, so much care that his attentiveness to detail tends to get in the way of the overall sweep and deliberate excess of the work as a whole. There is less of horror in Marche au supplice than there can be, and the concluding Witches’ Sabbath, although it is scarcely well-mannered, comes across as being considerably more orderly for Davis than it is for Jordan. The precision of the bells, for instance, is admirable in terms of how they sound but somewhat lacking in the chills that the repeated tolling is intended to elicit. And Davis’ pairing of the symphony with the Fantaisie sur la Tempête de Shakespeare from Lélio shows the hazards of presenting an excerpt of the paired work rather than the whole thing. Yes, the fantasy is worth hearing anytime, and yes, it is the piece toward which all of Lélio builds, and yes, this performance is well-shaped and well-sung, if its pacing is perhaps a trifle on the slow side. But what is missing is context: Lélio, for all its oddities and presentation difficulties, has, as the reason for its existence, the Symphonie fantastique that it follows, and the absence of the fantasy’s framework (abetted by its placement before the symphony on this recording) prevents it from adding anything substantive to the experience of Symphonie fantastique. Nevertheless, this is a very fine recording, one whose sound quality and first-rate playing will make it attractive to listeners who are uninterested in trying to absorb all the ins and outs of Lélio and prefer to see the Shakespeare fantasy as a bonus rather than as integral to Berlioz’ portrayal of a troubled artist’s deeply felt but often disorganized thoughts and feelings.

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