I know that this Boulez recording of the Berlioz Fantastique has not really been well-regarded among listeners for its lack of poetry and atmosphere. I know that Boulez has downplayed the "fantastique" elements and highlighted both the symphonic structure and the avant-garde aspects of the music. Despite these shortcomings, I was prepared to accept this performance on its own terms. It's at least good to know that this Fantastique might still have some redeeming qualities in it.
Although the first movement gets off to a good start, I do note that the strings are a little bit earthbound in their first theme and in the first iteration of the idée fixe. However, Boulez is in control of the proceedings, managing the various mood swings of the piece adeptly. He has a grasp of the structure and he is trying to show us the logic in Berlioz's construction. The performance gets on to a surer footing later on, when the winds play the theme later on and when the music becomes intense. In the ensuing Ball movement, I note that the strings are better here when they play the waltz theme, at least on the second time. The slow movement might be a challenge for some listeners to get through. I find that it could do with a bit more poetry and sensitivity, and it would have been better if Boulez had been steadier with the tempo and didn't speed up when approaching climaxes. However, he highlights the novel effect of the four timpani when they play chords to depict thunder towards the end.
This Boulez rendition of the Fantastique comes into its own in the last two movements. Although this stark rendition of the March to the Scaffold could have done with a bit more menace, Boulez still highlights the novel effects that Berlioz wrote into the music. He also pulls out all the stops in the Witches' Sabbath finale. The avant-garde elements are more pronounced here, and Boulez is in firm control of the proceedings. From the tolling bells before the Dies irae, the temperature of the performance literally heats up.
There are some shortcomings in this performance that I would like to highlight. Despite Boulez's highlighting of the avant-garde elements, this Fantastique could have done with a bit more sensitivity. There are some tender passages that could have been handled more sensitively, and the violins that play the idee fixe and the first theme of the Scene in the Country could have been steadier. Also, I note that the recording tends to be congested, lacking in space and air around the different instruments. There tends to be a lack of bloom on the sound, as is often the case with closely-miked recordings.
Like many listners, I am partial to the well-regarded Davis-Councertgebouw Berlioz Fantastique. So I wouldn't hesitate to recommend that performance to beginners, especially in its Pentatone release with its DSD transfer of the original 4-channel session tapes. I wouldn't mind recommending the HIP recording of Gardiner and the ORR. However, this Boulez version can at least offer its merits to experienced listeners who wouldn't mind his approach.
Berlioz' 'Symphonie Fantastique' is a very important piece of music. In his own commentary on the piece, he comments on his use of a repeating melody, an idée fixe (fixed idea). This symphony is in many ways a symphonic poem, a new sort of idea - even the structure of the symphony, being in five movements, is an innovation. This is a symphony that tells a story - one in which a gifted artist succumbs to drugs in despair over love; many saw Berlioz' own life being presented here, and he eventually dropped the narrative designations, allowing the movement headings to stand as sufficient enlightenment to the listener. 1. Rêveries - Passions (Passions) 2. Un bal (A Ball) 3. Scène aux champs (Scene in the Country) 4. Marche au supplice (March to the Scaffold) 5. Songe d'une nuit du Sabbat (Dream of a Sabbath Night) The first movement opens with a light piece that quickly becomes the idée fixe, the recurring melody. The second movement takes a simple waltz theme that goes up and down in many ways - this is perhaps meant to symbolise the isolation of a lovestruck person at the ball. The third movement has melodies drawn in horn and oboe, with rustic and romantic influences evident here. The fourth movement is much more dramatic, with horns and rushes that are anything but pastoral, and fifth movement draws on a piece from traditional requiems, the Dies Irae, together with ideas reminiscent of church bells and a graveyard. The second major piece here, Tristia, which is a trio of pieces written at different times, later collected as a group for chorus and orchestra. The first, the Méditation religieuse was composed in Rome during 1831. It is a setting for six-part chorus and small orchestra based on a poem by Thomas Moore. It uses horn and strings at the end to good effect. The second and third pieces come from Berlioz' work with Hamlet; La mort d'Ophélie and the Marche funèbre for the final scene of Hamlet both have interesting development and intonations. The performances by the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus, under the direction of Pierre Boulez, with chorus master Gareth Morrell, are absolutely flawless. There is a perfect energy and perfect clarity of pieces here. The tempo is grand and appropriate for each piece, and the power particularly in the end of the Symphonie Fantasique reminded me of the similar power at the end of Berlioz' 'Te Deum'. This is a disc every music lover should have.