Classical Notes

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14

Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique
John Eliot Gardiner, conductor
Philips 434 402-2

It seems highly significant that the CD revolution,treble clef graphic and the debate it has engendered over the accuracy of recorded sound, first took hold in the realm of classical music, even though the genre accounts for a minute share of the overall record market. Classical composers and performers have always been extremely sensitive to the aural setting surrounding their works, often customizing an entire piece to the particular qualities of the performers and location of the premiere.

Hector Berlioz is generally acknowledged as the first romantic composer to lavish great care over orchestration, and the Symphonie Fantastique is his most popular work. It has hardly lacked for great recordings in the past, including those by Monteux, Walter, Munch, Bernstein and Davis. Each conveyed in ever improved sound the glories of Berlioz's score, which is filled with bold, experimental touches: the four glittering harps of the second movement, the arid winds in the third, the blaring trombones of the fourth, and the eerie bells and violins played con legno (with the wood of their bows) in the fifth.Gardiner and the Ochestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique The trend seemingly culminated in the revelatory use of original instruments in the highly acclaimed 1989 recording by Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players (EMI CDC 7 49541 2). But now, Gardiner goes an important step further. His is the first recording to use not only original instruments but to be made in the Ancien Conservatoire of Paris -- the very room where Berlioz gave the world premiere!

If there is one valid criticism of Norrington's version, it lies in its sterility, which is a function both of the conductor's strict and unyielding tempos as well as the studio atmosphere. The startling instrumentation is captured with great clarity, but tends to sound more like a calculated product of the control room rather than something more human and organic. Gardiner allows his players greater interpretive freedom. He achieves sonic clarity comparable to Norrington, but through natural means, without the artifice of spot-miking and studio enhancement.

Gardiner's pioneering approach is to take full advantage of the acoustic of the Ancien Conservatoire known to Berlioz. He replicates the staging of the time by arranging the musicians on steep risers. This enabled each player to project his sound clearly and directly to each member of the audience (and now the microphone). The presentation is complemented by the small but ambient concert hall, which contributes only a minimum of reverberation, yielding a tight, focussed sound. As a result, the recording has fine natural presence. Listening provides an enhanced satisfaction, something akin to a meal that tastes even better because of unadulterated, healthful ingredients.

But isn't this a mere gimmick? Curiosity aside, should we really care how a composer first heard his own work? Absolutely! A composer arranges abstract musical thoughts into formal patterns, and any successful performance requires the artist to penetrate the mind of the creator in order to complete the process of translating the abstractions into tangible form once again. An understanding of the initial creative impulse is crucial to the integrity of a performance. And knowing how a composer "heard" his ideas is crucial to that understanding.

This quest for knowledge about artists is hardly new. For centuries, scholars have avidly delved into the biographies of the great composers, even going so far as to pry into their private lives to determine the identity of the "Immortal Beloved" who fueled Beethoven's frustrations and creativity, the cause of Schumann's insanity, the source of Wagner's poisoned politics, and the types of drugs to which Berlioz was addicted. Surely this is not mere meddling but a deeper urge to delve into the creative process in order to relate to and better understand it.

And yet, while certainly interesting, this type of detective work is not only highly speculative but is of limited value to get at what really counts for a performing artist. After all, it is anyone's guess how Beethoven's afflications or Berlioz's drugs affected their minds; Beethoven may have been deaf, but he "heard" with greater depth, insight and vision than any unimpaired person. And limiting the goal of classical performance to an exact replication of the composer's aural image would result in nearly identical performances, an awfully boring and uninspiring prospect.

As previous recordings so vividly demonstrate, Gardiner's documentary approach may not be the only or even the best way to perform the Symphonie Fantastique. But knowing how the music actually was intended to sound is a fascinating and significant start.

Peter Gutmann

Copyright 1994 by Peter Gutmann

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