Berlioz -- Symphonie Fantastique; Speakers Corner [LP]; Paris Conservatoire Orchestra; Argenta

It was nice to reacquaint myself with this superb Gallic rendition of Symphonie Fantastique after the disappointment of Daniele Gatti's recent debut with his new orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra [reviewed here]. 

This is how a Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique should sound. And how incredible it sounds composed just three years after the premiere of Beethoven's Ninth. It's really difficult to believe. The story, the structure, the melody and harmony. So advanced. It shows how unrequited love and drugs can affect a young artist, even back in 1830. Young Berlioz was mad for Brit actress Harriet Smithson, but she wasn't bothered! He took it out on her in his symphony's idée fixe. Kills her, is excecuted at the guillotine, she's then transformed into a witch. Like Bernstein said of the symphony, 'it's a wild ride'. 

This gorgeous sounding Decca is from November 1957 at Maison de la Mutualité, Paris by Ken Cress and produced by James Walker. It's a beautiful Decca, but also full of power and brimstone. 

The grand old orchestra, made up of teachers and pupils from the Conservatoire (disbanded in 1967 and reformed as the Orchestre de Paris), sounds good enough -- effective, evocative and powerful when required. But many of the solos are undistinguished and the brass playing can sound decidedly ropey! The bass trombone player is thinking croissants not crotchets! You'll be buying this LP for the sound and Argenta's fabulous conducting and interpretation.

Spanish conductor, Ataúlfo Argenta.

Spanish conductor, Ataúlfo Argenta.

Argenta was a great conductor, blessed with an infinite talent to bring colour and vitality to mainstream works. He was a fine accompanist, too (check out his LSO Blueback with Campoli playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto). Whether recording Debussy with the Suisse Romande or lollipops like Espagna with the LSO, many of his recordings, including this Fantastique, go to the top for both musical and recorded quality. I'm not sure any conductor was better served by their record company. Argenta's Bluebacks (London pressings for the US market of Decca recordings) are legendary. 

The interpretation runs the mainstream, with fast tempos for all movements -- Argenta doesn't moon around like Gatti. No naval gazing. So, Un Bal and March move. The string playing is refined, if not the brass. Percussion has weight, especially in the Songe d'une nuit du sabbat. But the recording is so good, even the pp percussion (cymbals/bass drum) in Nuit sound weighty, accurate. 

Everyone needs a great Symphonie Fantastique in their collection. Audiophiles need this one. Again, at USD$34.99, these exquisite Speakers Corner reissues are not cheap. But you'll get a lifetime Symphonie Fantastique. Full of French character heard through a legendary recording. Very highly recommended. 

Product Code: SPCO-SPE-2009

Label/Make: Speakers Corner (Decca)

Description: 180 Gram Audiophile Virgin Vinyl LP - Sealed

UPC: 4260019710635

Musicians:

  • Paris Conservatoire Orchestra
  • Ataúlfo Argenta (conductor)

1. Symphonie fantastique - Rêveries - Passions

2. Symphonie fantastique - Un bal

3. Symphonie fantastique - Scène aux champs

4. Symphonie fantastique - Marche au supplice

5. Symphonie fantastique - Songe d'une nuit du sabbat