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Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique - SCO & Ticciati - International Record Review


01 May 2012
International Record Review
Nigel Simeone

This is a very worthwhile addition to the vast discography of the Symphonie fantastique. There are two main points of interest. The first is the size of the orchestra, with a string section comprising five desks of first violins, four of seconds, three each of violas and cellos and two of double basses. These are much smaller forces than are usually used and there is a considerable gain in clarity as a result. As the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's habit in repertoire of this period the strings use vibrato very sparingly, so there's also a purity and freshness to the string sound that is most attractive. Brass are crisp, bright but never overbearing, and the SCO woodwind are consistently impressive, both individually and collectively. The second reason to explore this disc is Robin Ticciati's conducting. This is his first record as Principle Conductor of the SCO and it's unquestionably an impressive debut.

'Rêveries-Passions' is particularly successful: the detailed teasing out of individual lines and colours in the slow introduction provides several arresting moments where I found myself scrutinizing finer points of the score to marvel again at the delicacy and finesse with which Berlioz handles his forces. Yet Ticciati achieves all this transparency without resorting to an unduly analytical view of the music.

The build-up to the main Allegro agitato is very well managed, though when the idéefixe theme emerges for the first time I did wonder if it was a little bit loud (Berlioz marks it piano, and it feels a shade stronger than that here); but the control and discipline evident in both the playing and conducting of this movement is persuasive. There's scope for more rowdiness, certainly, but this clearly isn't Tacciati's way, and I have to say that I greatly enjoyed his mixture of straightforwardness and a very careful reading of the score in this movement.

In 'Un bal' Ticciati sticks to the standard published version (as approved by Berlioz) rather than opting for the additional cornet part (as added by Berlioz in the autograph manuscript). This isn't a major issue, but it would have been interesting to have heard the cornet part in the context of an ensemble this size. I'm rather more concerned by the slightly stilted feeling of the waltz though: it's perfectly correct and attentively played but it doesn't quite have the sense of dancing rapture that some of the work's greatest exponents bring to this music. in essence, it's maybe a little too sober and formal - not what Berlioz had in mind when he chose the still-disreputable waltz as his substitute for a scherzo.

The 'Scène aux champs' is a complete success: Ticciati is unhurried, in the best sense, and lets the wind principals take their time too, but there's a strong sense of architecture in a movement that can too easily become a ramble, and the climax is powerful. The sheer weirdness of the orchestral writing in the epilogue is relished to the full.

In the 'Marche au supplice' the rhythmic drive and bone-rattling clarity of the timpani - at a tempo that is also ideally judged - makes for a thrilling opening, and in this movement the agile and very cleanly articulated brass playing is a real delight. So, too, is the very credible shot at the sound of an ophicleide (even though none is listed in the booklet). Only near the end of the movement did I wonder if Ticciati was micro-managing things a little too carefully: the dotted rhythms in the strings sound too reined in, and on the final page the brass chords - marked simply forte in the score - begin in quite a restrained way, getting gradually louder.

The slow introduction to the final is another highlight of this performance, with the SCO wind players giving a plausible  and suitably spooky account of the slides that Berlioz indicates in the score. The bells are a perennial problem in the Symphonie fantastique and the solution here is acceptable rather than thrilling; they sound like decently hefty bell plates though, not the puny and feeble tubular bells of some recordings. At the hysterical heart of this movement Ticciati shows an acute imagination in terms of orchestral colouring (there are some lovely details), but the whole thing sounds far too safe. These ghouls and fiends a re altogether too dapper and too genteel, swigging bottled water at the gym rather than getting stoned at an orgy. It's quite effective in its clean-living way, but I can't help feeling that a trick has been missed in terms of unleashing the expressive violence and unruliness of Berlioz's music here.  A quick comparison with the approach of some of Ticciati's great predecessors shows what I mean: Paul Paray's stunning  Mercury performance, or Munch's 1954 RCA disc, or Bernstein in either 1963 or 1968 (both on Sony) all reveal more of the phantasmagorial side of the work - one of its most endearingly original features and a dimension that Ticciati (presumably deliberately) has chosen to play down.

The Overture to Béatrice et Bénédict is played with the same fastidious attention to detail and transparency and it works very well: the SCO plays beautifully. Matters are greatly helped throughout this SACD by the astonishingly good recorded sound. In terms of the engineering this is one of the finest sounding orchestral discs to have come my way in a while.  As a final incentive to explore the disc, the outstanding booklet note by David Cairns is an authoritative as it is eloquent - one of the most cogent and compelling short introductions to the work that I've ever read.

I hope it is clear from this that there is much to enjoy in this new Symphonie fantastique. It may be too cool-headed in places, especially in the second and fifth movements, but the scaled down approach brings its own rewards and the overall impression is certainly refreshing.


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Berlioz: Symphonie FantastiqueBerlioz: Symphonie Fantastique