A Four-Handed Fantastique

Review by: Jed Distler

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Artistic Quality: 7

Sound Quality: 9

Before discussing Jean-François Heisser’s piano duo arrangement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, I thought it would be appropriate to discuss the fascinating instrument heard in this recording. It’s a “double grand” piano developed by the Pleyel company in the 19th century, with two pianos together in a single case, sharing a frame and a soundboard, yet with each piano having its own set of strings, its own pedals, and its own action. Only about 50 of these pianos were produced, including one used by the Duo Egris & Pertis in recordings for Hungaroton. Heisser and his duo partner Marie-Josèphe Jude perform on a restored 1928 Pleyel “Vis-à-vis”.

Although the basic sonority lacks the full-bodied-ness and heft of, say, a modern Steinway, there is a wealth of timbral diversity between registers that allows for clarity and definition in thickly scored passages, such as the rapid middle-register figurations in the Songe d’une nuit de Sabbat finale and the low-lying muffled percussion effects at the outset of the Marche au supplice.

The pianists don’t quite find their center in the first movement; for example, the syncopated accompaniment underneath the principal “idée fixe” is precise yet rigid, lacking nervous energy and forward impetus. Un bal, however, is light, lilting, and rhythmically pliable. Even with the greatest orchestras and conductors, Scene aux champs can sound static and uneventful, yet the Pleyel’s aforementioned timbral character comes into its own in regard to the varied tonal shadings in the long chains of tremolos. Similarly, the close counterpoint in Marche au supplice never sounds muddy, while the pianists impart an exuberant sweep to the main march theme in tandem with the rising scales.

The pianists are at their best in the finale, as they lock into the fugal writing with infectious “swing” while generating steady and galvanic momentum in the swirling woodwind sequences. Had Heisser and Jude gotten another shot at the first movement I would have been able to recommend this release without reservation. Piano mavens interested in Symphonie fantastique also should investigate Liszt’s admittedly unwieldy yet effective solo keyboard transcription, especially as recorded by Leslie Howard (Hyperion), Roger Muraro (Decca), Christopher O’Riley (Oxingale), Todd Crow (MSR), and Idil Biret (IBR, the first and better of her two versions), along with Nikolai Petrov’s deliciously convoluted recasting of the Liszt transcription (Melodiya).



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: None for this arrangement, Original Orchestral Version: Munch/Boston Symphony Orchestra (RCA, 1962 remake); Thomas/San Francisco Symphony (RCA); Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic (DG, 1975 remake)

  • BERLIOZ, HECTOR:
    Symphonie fantastique (arranged for two pianists by Jean-François Heisser)
  • Jean-François Heisser and Marie-Josèphe Jude (piano)

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