Charles Munch's performance of Berlioz's Fantastic Symphony is a classic of the gramophone: one of the very first stereo recordings made by RCA at a time when they did not have the technology to manufacture records in stereo. It was recorded in three tracks in November 1954 and was briefly available on reel to reel tape a year or so later but did not become available as a stereo recording until 1958. The present remastering is VERY up-front (you can almost hear the rosin on the strings) but it is detailed, rich and at a high level whilst also having a good sense of space.
Munch's view of the work is full of temperament. The feeling of the agonies of young love descending into drug-induced madness is caught better that anyone else I can think of. The instability of the first movement replicates the passions and reveries of the title; the ball scene whirls past at just over 6 minutes (no repeats, of course, as was common in the 1950's) with very telling harps; the country scene is one of the fastest on record and very sinister but then is followed by a steady and menacing March to the Scaffold. The Dream of the Witches' Sabbath is frantic and frenetic - quite wild. Nobody does this like Munch.
So, although there is no obligato cornet part in the Ball Scene and although the repeats are thin on the ground in all movements, this is a very special recording, with a vibrancy unsurpassed by any other. At current asking price from Amazon lovers of this hugely romantic and strange work should snap up one of the great interpretations of the century.
This disc, compiled from recordings made as long ago as 1954 and 1961, has been very successfully remastered. As a result the tonal spectrum of the orchestra has been improved and the depth of field has been deepened. This Fantastic lives up to its name in a way that Berlioz did not have in mind.
The Symphony itself is from a two track recording while the Romeo recording is from a three track original. This means that the Romeo scene can be heard through the front three speakers in surround mode. The Symphony will be heard via the front left and right speakers in surround mode. There is no doubt about the superiority of the surround mode for both works over traditional CD playback where that facility is available. This can easily be tested by playing the two track symphony via the stereo only version and the two track surround version. The latter has far more depth, space and sense of reality.
As far as interpretations go, this is a typical Munch disc with plenty of emotional fire and drive. That is very suitable for most of this symphony bearing in mind the drug induced fantasies evoked and portrayed via the music. Munch's speeds are all on the sprightly side with little room for introspective considerations. This is a valid viewpoint and there is no doubting the excitement generated in this way, particularly with the final witches' Sabbath movement.
However, some listeners may feel that this approach may be questioned with the rapid march to the scaffold which comes over as rather a jolly jaunt to rather a jolly occasion. This seems essentially unlikely. Boulez, on the other hand, once produced a performance so slow it sounded as if it was a slowed down rehearsal practice. That too seemed doubtful. There are many versions taking a safer and surer mid-course as regards a tempo for this particular movement. This will be a matter of personal preference.
The Romeo excerpt is well done with no provisos and the further advantage of a three track recording and the later date is a further advantage. This is not to undermine the very real merits of the symphony recording which is truly remarkable for 1954.
I would suggest that this disc will give admirers of Munch great cause for celebration. The same may be said of anyone interested in upgrading an earlier mastering to this new version. Other potential purchasers may wish to consider the issue over the March to the Scaffold tempo and decide of it should be jolly, and even exciting in a jolly way, or altogether more restrained with a degree of fear or trepidation made clear.
In conclusion this disc is a winner for at least two categories of purchasers as above and a possible consideration for others. A personal choice at that point.