Symphonie fantastique, Op.14
Beatrice et Benedict Overture
London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: December 2001
CD No: LSO LIVE LSO 0007 CD
Be part of an LSO concert at home. Should you live in or near London, the LSO would rather you be in the Barbican, and then buy the CD. Recorded over two nights, 27 and 28 September 2000, this is Colin Davis’s fourth recording of Berlioz’s ’Episodes in the life of an artist’. The previous ones, all for Philips, all studio jobs – LSO, Concertgebouw, Vienna Philharmonic – chart Davis’s relationship with music he is so closely associated with. (The VPO version is underrated.)
The LSO’s initiative in preserving Sir Colin’s ’late’ musings on a favourite composer is to be congratulated. With two concerts to choose from, plus the back-up of recording the ’dress’ rehearsal, this isn’t a record-and-issue-it enterprise but a thoughtfully planned attempt to preserve music-making caught on the cusp in spontaneous conditions with enough choice of takes to ensure a liveable-with product.
Thus Sir Colin’s ’Fantastique’ is wrought from ’real’ performance and tidied as appropriate – including at the very end; there is no applause. I hear no edits! As to rendition, there is exemplary balance between fantasy and direction. Davis’s rapport with Berlioz can be heard in every bar. While it’s possible to imagine the music being more ’heated’, Davis would rather suggest than be graphic; he creates illusions.
Davis’s is a reading with the emphasis on poetry and gentle expression, Berlioz’s lines agilely etched and lovingly intertwined, beautifully played too, so that when a blaze is needed it makes more impact. This satisfies perfectly the first three movements’ dreams and ardour. The waltz – ad lib cornet included – is light on its feet, harps adding decorous glints of sound, while ’Scene aux champs’ is idealised pastoralism, a haven of seclusion interrupted by passion and storm – the on/off-stage cor anglais/oboe exchanges wonderfully judged, the imaginative storm-intimating timpani equally cared for.
Sinister and eerie machinations inform ’March to the Scaffold’ and ’Witches’ Sabbath’, which Davis could perhaps highlight more. The former, as always with Davis, has its rarely observed repeat intact (the first movement’s also ’complete’), is implacably delivered, no eulogy as the guillotine is brought ever nearer. The nightmare vision is complete with the midnight bell (somewhat tame here), hexing witches and the ’Dies irae’ interpolated into the orchestral melting pot – driven to dénouement with unerring skill, if not the most hair-raising clamour. There are more illustrative possibilities but Colin Davis celebrates the music, and his view is among the best from that aspect.
The recording is good, excellently detailed with an especially telling bass line; the loudest dynamics are compromised somewhat though – this was recorded before the Barbican Hall’s acoustic ’facelift’. The overture – also on LSO 0004, a complete Beatrice – is sparkling and loving. Recommended.