A spirited Le corsaire leads off this impressive Berlioz collection from Lyon, an admirable debut disc from the excellent Orchestre National of that city and its recently appointed music director, Leonard Slatkin. From the get-go, Slatkin leads a performance of this overture that mixes discipline, spontaneity, tenderness and drive, with detail and expression never compromised; the coda is a fine blaze of sound captured in what appears to be a spacious, warm and vivid concert hall. As well as French polish, the timbres that radiate from the Lyon musicians are welcome for being recognisable in geographical terms: Slatkin has always encouraged orchestras to sport their national identities.
The rest of the disc is given over to the five-movement Symphonie fantastique, which opens in the most poetic terms and burgeons into a suitably passionate Allegro (with exposition repeated). Symphonic and fantastical aspects are well-balanced, and the Lyon orchestra, no doubt very familiar with this score, seems delighted to re-visit it in this fresh interpretation, as vibrant and as susceptible as needed, great care taken with inner parts but without dampening the inherent drama of the whole. The second-movement ‘Un bal’ enjoys affectionate turns of phrase; the harps are antiphonal, but not alas the violins, although Slatkin wisely doesn’t take the ad lib
cornet part, which can ramble on so irritatingly. The ‘Scene in the Country’ slow movement is given on a large scale, a proper Adagio that gives time for the music to meaningfully express itself and also burn and thunder, the opening foreground cor anglais and its distant answering oboe mate in good perspective. A welcome surprise follows, for in ‘March to the Scaffold’ Slatkin observes the unusual repeat of the first section – odd enough to be mandatory – something he has not done in previous concert performances (for example in Washington DC some years ago). This is a welcome change of mind and his tempo is deliberate enough for the music’s swagger to be sinister if just a little contained. With the finale’s witches in full swing, the conductor exacting of articulation and detail as much as creating graphic description, a very enjoyable performance is completed.
But then cue another surprise: an encore in the form of a waltz. The annotation’s suggested 62 minutes seems rather long for the Fantastic Symphony, even with measured tempos and observed repeats, and, in fact, it is 56. The final track is ‘Un bal’ again, but this time with the cornet – definitely a second choice for this listener. Good to have though and here played with fruity style in up-front balance, and of course if preference dictates then it can be programmed into the symphony itself. Either way this is an impressive beginning to Leonard Slatkin’s Lyon tenure. Coming soon, same orchestra, same label, is a Ravel series.