Marek Janowski / Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique; Le Roi Lear

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Even though Hector Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique is one of the most familiar classical works, performances are often surprising for the variety of sonorities that can still be found in it and for the exciting ways it can be interpreted. Berlioz was the Romantic showman par excellence, and he made this piece a showcase for what the modern orchestra could do, from conventional playing to special innovative effects. These include the famous timpani chords at the end of the "Scène aux champs," the grotesque brass pedal tones in the "Marche au supplice," and the eerie use of col legno battuto in the "Songe d'une nuit de sabbat," among many others. Of course, the novel aspects of Berlioz's orchestration come off best in live performance, but the next best thing is this hybrid super-audio CD from PentaTone that captures Symphonie fantastique in all its hallucinatory strangeness and vividness. Marek Janowski and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra present the symphony and the King Lear Overture with exquisite polish, and the marvelous audio production practically gets inside the ensemble and allows each part to have its distinctive -- and sometimes disturbing -- place in the mix. Beyond the fabulous sound, this is also an incredibly gripping interpretation because Janowski conveys all the passion and impulsiveness of the drug-addled artist in the work's program. Indeed, the music is as hot-headed and deranged as the composer intended, and listeners will feel compelled to listen to the whole SACD in one sitting, so riveting is this live performance for its high energy and seemingly endless array of skillfully crafted sounds. Highly recommended.

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