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Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique - SCO & Ticciati - MusicWeb International


01 May 2012
MusicWeb International
Dan Morgan

Not another Symphonie fantastique, I hear you groan. Granted, there are already more than enough in the catalogue, from the classic Colin Davis account (Philips) to more recent - often controversial - HIP or HIP-inspired versions from the likes of Roger Norrington (Hänssler) and Jos van Immerseel (Zig Zag). They all have their vices and virtues, but for many Davis's Concertgebouw recording - the high-res download of which I reviewed recently - remains sans pareil. I certainly didn't warm to Yannick Nézet-Séguin's reading - review - although his debut concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker suggests his live performances are better than his recorded ones.

Enter Robin Ticciati, the 29-year-old Londoner, principal conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and, from 2014, Vladimir Jurowski's successor at Glyndebourne. It's no surprise that he cites Colin Davis and Simon Rattle as his mentors; indeed, he resembles the latter in both his meteoric rise and the acclaim he's received. So this debut disc is freighted with promise, although I was a bit sceptical when I heard it was to be recorded with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra; a case of quarts and pint pots, perhaps. Intrigued, I slipped the SACD into my player and sat back to listen.

Well, it didn't take long to realise this is not just another Symphonie fantastique, but a performance of real distinction and flair. From the outset Ticciati draws fresh and vital sounds from his band, the emphasis more on restraint and purity of line than lurid scene-painting. That said, I've rarely - if ever - heard all the exquisite details and textures of Berlioz's score delivered with such care and grace. Indeed, there's a classical proportion to this reading that beguiles, for below the unruffled exterior beats a passionate, impulsive heart. As narratives go these reveries are as alluring as it gets, phrases beautifully wrought, climaxes taut and sympathetically scaled.

Drawing a quick breath before the ball, I reflected on how, in their search for ‘authenticity', some conductors drain the music and leave behind a desiccated husk. Listening to Ticciati's Berlioz I'm much more persuaded by his forensic attention to instrumental colours and overall texture than the often bleached sounds of period instruments or ill-conceived ideas about vibrato. The result is just wondrous, and I found myself hearing this miraculous score as if for the first time. The waltz rhythms are naturally sprung, the music presented as a seductive - but distant - fantasy. The playing is alert and alive. The sound - on both its Red Book and Super Audio layers - is always bewitching.

Sonically, Linn have settled on a recording that's entirely in keeping with the scale of this performance. The soundstage may seem a little shallow at times and the bass may not be as firm as I'd like, but there's good breadth and, most important, it's all so finely etched. Nowhere is this more evident than in the painted idyll that follows. Here Ticciati's reading has all the Arcadian grace and mystery of Keats's Grecian urn, whose shape and proportions are mirrored in playing of immense delicacy and charm. Tempi are well judged and Ticciati never allows the music to sag; how could he, when it's this light and lovely, the mood so hushed? That said, the storm clouds gather with a menace that's all the more disturbing for being so stealthily done. The distant rumble of timps is superbly caught.

I can't recall a more wistful rendition of this sylvan scene, or one in which we're so eloquently reminded that this is but a vision, a tender - but fragile - construct of the aesthete-poet's cultured mind. But then this performance is full of such epiphanies; that lurching march to the scaffold is both tasteful and terrifying. Ticciati simply refuses to rush. Clarity, articulation and a sure sense of the work's architecture are the guiding principles here. That doesn't mean the music is underpowered, merely that every nuance and colour is captured along the way. Just listen to the death rattle of side-drums as the blade is poised to fall; a small but telling touch; it's hugely affecting too.

Old loyalties die hard, but much as I admire Davis's classic recording I have to say this newcomer has renewed and refreshed this symphony in a way I scarcely thought possible. It just gets better when to that dark, tarry night is added a veritable witches' brew of strange cries and cackles. The brass is baleful, the col legno strings as disembodied as ever, and although the bells are rather subdued - at least they're not pianos. The sorcerous beat and whirling dances ensure the air of diablerie is never lost. The final pages are as revealing as the rest of this performance, and it was all I could do to stop myself from shouting ‘Bravo' at the end. Yes, it really is that good.

After regaining my composure - which took a while - I listened to the filler, the delightful overture to Berlioz's opera Béatrice et Bénédict. The same qualities that inform Ticciati's reading of the symphony - a marvellous sense of scale, a wealth of detail and lustrous colours - are present here in abundance. As for the SCO, they respond with a blend of poise and playfulness. The refined recording is a perfect partner in this most engaging enterprise.

I've rarely been so completely bowled over by new thoughts on old scores as I have been here. Ticciati is a conductor of indecent talent, and I daresay many will compare him with the young Rattle, who was also destined for great things. This is a fabulous disc, and - should it be needed - a splendid calling card.

Palate-cleansing, ear-pricking performances. Not to be missed.
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