Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique; Le Carnaval Romain

Jos van Immerseel / Anima Eterna Orchestra

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Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique; Le Carnaval Romain Review

by Blair Sanderson

Without any prior information, the first thing listeners will notice about Jos van Immerseel's 2008 recording of Hector Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique is the umistakable period instrumentation, with the sheen of the strings and the distinctive sound of early 19th century woodwinds and brass, obvious at the outset. The second thing discriminating listeners will notice is the great care Immerseel takes with connecting notes, not only in the straightforward handling of melodic phrases, but also in linking secondary figures in the accompaniment, so that this chord progression or that isolated pitch makes sense within the larger scheme of things. This is where the performance either rises or falls, depending on what one wants to get out of this work. To the extent that Berlioz created Symphonie fantastique to show off his innovative orchestration, this recording goes as far as any historically informed and scholarly version to make sure that everything is heard clearly, not merely as separate sounds, but as integral parts of the greater, kaleidoscopic whole. Where this rendition might be regarded as a failure is in its lack of visceral excitement, which seems to be the unintended result of producing an immaculate-sounding performance. Immerseel gets astonishing sonorities from the ensemble Anima Eterna Brugge, and the engineers of Zig Zag Territoires capture them to perfection, but no one remembered to make the music cook. If Symphonie fantastique is deprived of its passion, delirium, fury, violence, and horror, it is merely an exercise in futility. The point of this work and its bizarre program is to portray the extreme emotional life of its drug-addled protagonist. Yet because it is played here at somewhat slower tempos that feel plodding, and with a meticulous precision that seems overly fussy, it doesn't rush madly, it doesn't whirl feverishly, and it doesn't fly off its handle, but seems too self-conscious to really let things rip. The sole exception is the Dream of a Witches' Sabbath, which is almost as fiendish and hair-raising as one might wish, but comes much too late to save the performance. Conversely, Le Carnaval romain is the best selection on the album because it has a wonderful period sound and is played with the verve and energy missing in the Symphonie. At points, Immerseel seems to pull back slightly in his pacing, but these are minor adjustments for the sake of clarity that don't impede the vitality of the whole overture, least of all in the final stretch. So if clear performances of these classics are required, this CD will fill that need, but for wild and thrilling Romantic music, this recording of Symphonie fantastique is not a contender.

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