Colin Davis - Berlioz - Musicweb International

01 April 2012
Musicweb International
Dan Morgan

As with the Decca/Solti Mahler Eighth this Philips recording of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique is an undisputed classic and a firm favourite of mine for years. Part of the allure of this reading is Davis's unrivalled understanding of the composer's complex musical persona; indeed, he brought a proselytizing zeal to the entire cycle - recorded in the 1960s and 1970s - that's largely absent from his much more recent remakes for LSO Live. Naturally I was keen to hear how this already fine, much-lauded version has responded to the high-res treatment.

Remarkably well, is the short answer. One of the most obvious improvements over earlier incarnations is the added body and resonance in the lower strings. But there's more, much more; the sense of an airy, three-dimensional performing space has never been greater, while overall focus and instrumental separation are frankly astonishing. Quite apart from these most welcome details the recording now seems to have a more compelling narrative, the details of Berlioz's score rendered with rare naturalness and poise.

After those reveries and passions ‘Un bal' has a surprisingly high goose-bump count; textures are simply gorgeous and the music has a reach-out-and-touch ‘presence' that would be impressive in a 21st -century recording, let alone one made almost 40 years ago. And no-one could be unmoved by the sheer beauty and line of the ‘Scène aux champs', blessed as it is with the most refined wind and string playing; as for the quiet pizzicati, they're more keenly felt than ever before. Those who remember the advent of CD will recall critics remarking on how the new medium removed a veil from the performance; well, that's precisely what's happened here. This does mean that Davis's occasional grunts are more audible, but that matters not a jot when the music emerges as fresh and newly minted as it does here.

The engineers really surpassed themselves with this pioneering series, and the unforgiving world of high-resolution audio confirms how right - and how musically astute - their initial judgments were. Just listen to those ear-pricking passages for cor anglais and oboe, and to the shiversome rumble of timps as the storm clouds gather. Really, this is Berlioz playing of the highest order, the grotesque ‘Marche aux supplice' as nightmarish as I've ever heard it. In particular the weighty, well-blended brass blaze with even greater ferocity than I remember from the demonstration-quality LP and subsequent CDs.

What a hugely theatrical reading this is, the very antithesis of that fitful, foursquare Nézet-Séguin performance I reviewed recently. Davis's pacing is pretty much ideal, and he builds - and maintains - tension very well indeed. And when the blade does fall the paroxysms that follow will blow your windows out. Remarkably, all this is achieved without the recording being made to sound self-consciously ‘hi-fi'; it's a captivating, real-world performance from start to finish, free of the expressive nudges and liberties that disfigure so many versions of this piece.

The imagined ‘eye of newt and toe of frog' milieu of ‘Songe d'une nuit du Sabbat' was always a frisson-inducing high point of this recording, and it doesn't disappoint; those spooky col legno strings are more chilling than ever before, the bass deeper and more uncompromising. As for the bells, they ring out with renewed confidence and clarity, the ensuing Dies irae wonderfully spacious and
sonorous. Even in the tuttis there's no hint of overload or compression, the sound expanding effortlessly to the last bar.

There's so much to absorb and delight here; quite apart from Davis's reading and the technical wizardry on display in this Studio Master, we get to hear one of the world's great orchestra in fine form and full cry. What a distinctive, burnished sound they made then - recent recordings have been comparatively disappointing - and how they relish this eccentric score. This is by far the most lucid and involving incarnation of an already fine recording, and a punch on the nose to those who say high-res re-mastering is just a gimmick. Indeed, if Universal choose their recordings with care and re-master them as sympathetically as they've done thus far, we're in for a treat.

Alchemy or snake oil - call it what you will - this Studio Master is musical magic.
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Berlioz: Symphonie fantastiqueBerlioz: Symphonie fantastique