Berlioz From Utah

Review by: Jed Distler

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Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 8

Since Thierry Fischer took over the reins as its music director in 2009, the Utah Symphony has not only thrived but blossomed, as its recent Mahler First Symphony and Saint-Saëns recordings bear out. The musicians certainly give their conductor everything he asks for in this generously filled all-Berlioz disc, whether or not one agrees with every interpretive option.

In Symphonie fantastique Fischer takes an unusually broad tempo for the first movement’s opening Reveries section. While the minimum vibrato and slightly exaggerated diminuendos reflect period-instrument ensemble mannerisms that have unfortunately spread to modern orchestras, Fischer nevertheless generates tension through careful attention to balances and accents. His mindfulness extends into Passions. Listen, for instance to how the restless and jagged accompaniment underneath the “idée fixe” emerges with uncommon urgency and shapeliness, and note the cool calibration of the ascending and descending chromatic chords starting around 8:53. Yet I miss the sheer abandon and gathering energy of Karajan’s similarly suave second Berlin Philharmonic recording, or the second Munch/Boston and Bernstein/New York versions. Perhaps it’s an issue of Hyperion’s realistic yet slightly diffuse sonic soundstage, although the loudest percussion passages will test your loudspeakers.

Fischer scales Un bal down to alluring chamber dimensions, trading sweeping gaiety for intricate detail, where conversational woodwind counterpoint raises its head and the two harps retain palpable presence throughout. The sedate, heavy-gaited Marche au supplice packs little punch, but at least it’s not a sludge-fest in the manner of the Boulez/London Symphony recording. Similarly, the understated finale introduction raises doubts, but the Witches’ dance kicks in at quite a clip and never lets up, with an iron hand stirring the cauldron, so to speak.

Interestingly, top honors go to the central Scène aux champs, where Fischer’s strong inner rhythm imparts a subtle fluidity to the sometimes static writing, and where the extraordinary cor anglais soloist must receive special mention (I assume that it’s Lissa Stoltz, who is listed along with all of the other orchestra members in the booklet credits).

The Rêverie et caprice for violin and orchestra works best in quirkier recitative passages, where soloist Philippe Quint and Fischer interact with pinpointed delicacy. Experiencing La mort d’Ophélie apart from its usual context as central movement in Berlioz’s choral triptych Tristia Op. 18 and coupled with Fantastique somehow underlines the main melody’s kinship with the aforementioned idée fixe. While I prefer the Dutoit/Montreal recording’s faster pace and more forwardly balanced choir, Fischer’s undulating string accompaniment quietly lures you in and keeps you interested.

Berlioz’s deft deployment of three choral groups in Sara la baigneuse provides an ideal showcase for Fischer’s supple and vividly characterized vocal forces, although the closer miking of Colin Davis’ recording with the English Chamber Orchestra better underscores the pungency of Berlioz’s inventive instrumentation. Full texts and translations are included, along with superb annotations by Berlioz scholar David Cairns.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Symphonie fantastique: Munch/Boston Symphony (RCA); Thomas/San Francisco Symphony (RCA), Rêverie et caprice Op. 8: Grumiaux/Davis/London Symphony (Decca)

  • BERLIOZ, HECTOR:
    Symphonie fantastique Op. 14; Sara la baigneuse Op. 11; La mort d'Ophélie Op. 18 No. 2; Rêverie et caprice Op. 8
  • Philippe Quint (violin)
  • Utah Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, University of Utah Chamber Choir, Thierry Fischer


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