San Francisco Symphony / Michael Tilson Thomas

Berlioz: Symphony Fantastique

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In the Romantic repertoire, Michael Tilson Thomas has long been a dependable guide, demonstrating to audiences the most intricate workings and internal connections of the great masterpieces while always maintaining a coherent presentation of the music as a whole composition. His 2007 live performance of Hector Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra for the television series Keeping Score: Revealing Classical Music is, audibly, a study in clarity and coherence, and even without having access to the DVD of that program, one can tell that Tilson Thomas made Berlioz's madcap symphony perfectly clear to his audience and to television viewers. Yet this easy apprehension comes at a cost, which, in the case of this performance, is the emotional temperature of the music. Tilson Thomas has a remarkable and perhaps admirable objectivity about this hallucinatory and warped program piece, and there is little of the histrionics and violence that Berlioz obviously intended to be conveyed. Instead, what comes across is a kind of Beethovenian classicism, tempered by reason and balanced with energy, and even granted some volatility in the last two movements, but certainly not the white hot passion of Berlioz's deranged and murderous artist, nor the red hot flames of hell expected in the Dream of the Witches' Sabbath. Tilson Thomas' rendition is not as exciting as, say, Gustavo Dudamel's fiery rendition, nor even as curious as Paavo Järvi's eccentric reading, and among the broader field of recordings, is rather more comparable to the restrained style of Colin Davis than to any more exciting recordings, such as the fascinating version on period instruments by Marc Minkowski. So while this recording merits praise for elucidating Berlioz most popular work, it won't please listeners who want thrills and novelty.

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