For the past ten years, the conductor Thierry Fischer has been for the Utah Symphony Orchestra what Mariss Jansons did for the Oslo Philharmonic and Simon Rattle for the City of Birmingham orchestra: he lifted a decent and well-regarded local orchestra up to an altogether higher level. Their recordings, chiefly of French music, have generally been well received. Now they come with one of the cornerstones of that repertoire, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.
One of the first things I noticed in the opening Rêveries - Passions was how exactly Fischer was following the many precise indications which Berlioz had put into his score: the phrasing, the balance between the instruments and the numerous slight quickenings and slowings that he asks for. Next came the excellence of the woodwinds, notably the first flute in the first statement of the idèe fixe: the motto theme of the whole work which represents the beloved. Perhaps the feeling of yearning is not wholly evoked, but it is certainly marvellous playing.
The following movement, Un bal, features the only appearance of two harps. These come over nicely and clearly, possibly slightly boosted by the engineers (they are notoriously hard to capture). The playing of the strings is also noticeably stylish, and the whole movement sings and dances, light on its feet.
The Scène aux champs can drag, but Fischer keeps it moving and full of interest. Again, there is good solo work from the winds. I wonder whether the opening solo for cor anglais gave Wagner the idea of Siegfried’s ill-fated attempts before he rouses Fafner. The closing passages for four timpani tuned to different notes, suggesting distant thunder, are mysterious and evocative.
The Marche au supplice is appropriately grim and sinister. Again, I noted the precision of execution in the fast rhythmic passages. The moment near the end where the idée fixe is cut off by the guillotines comes as the shock it should.
The final Songe d’une nuit du sabbat is a very varied piece. The mysterious opening is full of atmospheric sounds. Then we have the mocking version of the idée fixe squealed out by the E flat clarinet, taken up and elaborated by the rest of the orchestra. Next comes the Dies irae on two tubas—Berlioz originally wrote for ophicleides, which produce rasping grunts rather than the purer and louder notes of tubas—immediately mocked by the woodwind at twice the speed. This turns into a round dance with the idée fixe and the Dies irae combined together in canonic writing which is never quite fugal. All this is forcefully and effectively done.
This is certainly a good performance of the Symphonie fantastique, and one would be well content if one heard it in concert. But this is a hotly competitive field. There are many other versions to consider, including such classics as Charles Munch’s (he recorded it twice, and the 1954 version is the one to go for) and Colin Davis’s (he recorded it four times, and the 1974 Concertgebouw version is the best). Among the conductors of recent versions, there are Riccardo Muti (the coupling is the Symphonie’s sequel Lélio), Robin Ticciati (in a historically informed performance) and François-Xavier Roth (two versions on original instruments). Compared to those, this recording is slightly lacking in magic.
The couplings may change things, however, for they are exceptionally interesting. The Rêverie et caprice is based on an aria Berlioz wrote for the character Teresa in his opera Benvenuto Cellini but rejected. (You can hear it in the Appendix to John Nelson’s recording of the opera.) In its revised version, it is a violin concertante work, and the nearest Berlioz came to writing an actual concerto; Harold in Italy, despite its solo viola, is hardly that. It is not major Berlioz but Philippe Quint’s luscious violin playing makes it a very pleasant piece.
The other two works involve a chorus, in which the orchestra is joined by the Utah Symphony Chorus, strengthened by the University of Utah Chamber Choir. La mort d’Ophélie sets a French translation of the speech in Hamlet in which Gertrude describes Ophelia’s death by drowning. With its lilting rhythm, it is more melancholic than tragic, and it has a clear reminiscence of the opening of the idée fixe from the symphony. Sara la baigneuse sets a poem from Victor Hugo’s Les Orientales for three choral groups, allowing some very intricate textures. This is also charmingly done.
The recording is rich and full. The booklet notes are by the Berlioz expert David Cairns, no less. There are texts and translations of the two choral works (the translation of the Hamlet passage back into English has been particularly tactfully done). A suggestive cover picture has the title Sarah bathing. So, even if the performance of the symphony is not a world-beater, the couplings make this a worthwhile issue.