The wonderful Toronto Symphony Orchestra is in another Golden Age, built from near bankruptcy 20 years ago by a talented backroom team, superb hires and a brilliant orchestral trainer in Peter Oundjian. Oundjian hired almost half the orchestra present on this recording. He was an inspired choice at the time when it was more of an Iron Age than Golden in The Big Smoke.
Replacing Oundjian is the recently appointed Spaniard Gustavo Gimeno. He was a Concertgebouw section percussionist who jumped into conducting quite late and is enjoying a very fast upward trajectory via Luxembourg and now the plum TSO gig.
But while the orchestra waited for Gimeno to begin his tenure, a caretaker was need. The TSO chose old faithful, Music Director from 1975 to 1988, Sir Andrew Davis. Davis is much loved in Toronto and is considered around the musical world as a safe bet. You know what you’re getting with Davis, and managers and boards like it that way—a no tantrum conductor, and perfect for Toronto the Good’s orchestra.
Davis also has a very good relationship with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir—a world class group that performs grand scale works with the orchestra and in its own concert series.
Much like the performances on many of Davis’ CDs, this performance is very well prepared, features very fine orchestral playing, elegant phrasing with a beautiful orchestral balance.
Recording is via the Soundmirror production team for Chandos Records and recorded in the orchestra’s home, the very problematic Roy Thomson Hall. Much like the Chandos engineers did for Oundjian’s superb Scheherazade, they fix many of the hall’s idiosyncrasies in the mix. There is a nice bloom around the orchestra—you could almost imagine they can hear each other, a musical necessity not afforded when playing on stage. I’ve heard Davis conduct the Boston Symphony in Symphony Hall and he can balance an orchestra by ear pretty well perfectly—no knob twiddling needed.
The interpretation of Symphonie Fantastique is straight ahead as Berlioz required. The ‘Marche’ is taken as a March, ‘Un Bal’ is a lovely waltz with not too much rubato and the witch is a bitch, just as Berlioz imagined her. Nasty.
My single problem with the recording/performance is the volume of the Dies Irae bells in the ‘Songe d'une nuit du sabbat’. They are very loud in relation to the orchestra, a misstep by engineer, performer, conductor or all three. I’m not sure if the bells were added later, but surely Davis would have noticed on playback. The marking is only 1 f with an accent, not ff. Notice in the score below, Berlioz knows the difference (trombones). The bells sounded a little more balanced on my SONOS system, but on my music room reference system on HiRes Qobuz through Roon, the imbance was far more noticeable.
If you are a Davis fan or an admirer of the TSO, don’t let that one thing put you off. In a very crowded field, the TSO once again proves it is a very fine orchestra and can compete with some of the very best.
This quality is also found in the choral selection, one of the six pieces from the Symphonie’s sequel, Lelio—the final selection of the six, Fantaisie sur la "Tempête" de Shakespeare (Fantasy on Shakespeare's "The Tempest"). Written in Italy 1831, Berlioz incorporates the piano for the first time as an orchestral instrument and uses Italian for the text.
Davis can be spectacular in large choral works, especially those of Berlioz, Elgar and Vaughan-Williams, and his legacy is maintained with this splendid performance, helped in no small part by lovely singing from the Mendelssohn and delicate, exquisite playing from the orchestra. Recommended.
Berlioz - Symphonie Fantastique; Fantasy on Sheakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’
Running Time: 69:33
Release Date: July 2019
Toronto Mendelssohn Choir
Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis
Producer (Soundmirror Inc.)
Engineer (Soundmirror Inc.)
Venue 20-22 September 2018
Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto, Canada