The discography of Symphonie fantastique has grown lushly since 1923 (or 1924, depending on what you read) when René-Emmanuel Baton made the first recording of it, with the Paris-based Pasdeloup Orchestra, much reduced for the occasion (a handful of violins) but still a remarkable undertaking for the acoustic era (currently available on Warner Classics). I have no idea what number recording of fantastique Andrew Davis’s is, but in Berlioz 150 year it is welcome.
Sir Andrew’s success is that he doesn’t try anything novel for its own sake, trusting Berlioz’s originality and ambition as sufficient, to which add some subtle personal touches. With excellent Toronto playing Davis leans into the burgeoning expression of ‘Réveries’ (well-tailored pizzicatos and some beguiling woodwinds/horns as well as sweet strings) but he may not be the last agitato or appassionato word in ‘Passions’, for all the sure-coursed, articulate and dynamic musicianship on offer, and the occasional affectionate linger.
‘Un bal’ is elegantly shaped, waltzing curvaceously, with a few cheeky string slides (nice) and, wisely, Davis passes on the added-later ad lib cornet solo, although harps could be more prominent. With an expansive ‘Scène aux champs’ this account comes into its own, the exchanges between cor anglais and (distant) oboe well-managed, strings on the cusp of febrile and blossoming to that state, and the closing timpani thunder is suitably threatening, a portent of then being marched to the scaffold, here a little quick and not the ultimate in swagger, if enjoying glorious brass and a boisterous bassoon, and once the guillotine has done its work we’re with the witches, not the gaudiest of parties, splendid bells though (mighty and clangourous) and a hard-hit bass drum, some rough-trade entrants barred at the door, but there is sufficient energy and hair-letting-down for a rousing conclusion, but shy piccolos.
With the weight of this music’s discographical history bearing down, this is a ★★★ performance, for all its likeable, and enduring, qualities. By the way, Davis observes the repeats in movements I and IV, which might surprise anyone who has heard him conduct fantastique in the concert hall. The extra étoile is for the final chunk of Lélio, Berlioz’s Opus 14 “return to life” supplement (placed first on the disc). The ‘Tempest Fantasy’, scored for a chorus without baritones or basses (singing as required in Italian, text/translation in booklet) and an orchestra including a piano (believed to be the first such use of the instrument), is a delight – wacky Berlioz – as airy as it is dramatic, for which Davis finds that extra edge and relish.
The recorded sound is perfectly good, not only involving the expected producer/editor and engineer (in the latter capacity audiophiles will know the name John Newton) ... yet also a mixing engineer and one for mastering ... and then not forgetting “Chandos mastering” courtesy of Jonathan Cooper. At the end of all that, one wonders (no more than that) if we are getting the genuine Roy Thomson Hall effect.