Streaming the Classics—3/Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

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Do you ever type a streaming query in Roon for a classical work and are overwhelmed by the choices? Rather than clicking on any old recording or the first one you see, Audiophilia will make things a little easier for you and do the heavy listening.

These choices are for streaming only. Is the best in streaming also the best vinyl recording and performance? That’s for another article.

A few criteria:

  1. Recording must be on both Qobuz and Tidal HiFi.

  2. It does not have to be HiRes or MQA.

  3. No more than ten recommendations in no particular order, then my top three for streaming in order of preference.

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That’s it. Each post will not be exhaustive—a few notes about the recording and performance and lots of nice photos. Then we’ll get you back to listening.

We’ll tell you about recordings that surprised us (either way) and go into a little more detail why we chose a top three.

Like much of the mainstream repertoire on streaming services, you’ll get several versions of popular performances, reissues, rights purchased by small companies, conglomerate takeovers (note Warner Music for example), etc.

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In our previous Streaming the Classics/Beethoven Symphonies instalment where Karajan dominates the sets—the same may be said for Sir Colin Davis in the Symphonie Fantastique. Long known and loved for his championing of Berlioz, especially his lesser known works, large scale choral works and operas, Davis made it his life’s work bringing these massive works to the concert hall and opera house.

And during his time with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Bavarian Radio Symphony, Dresden Staatskapelle and London Symphony, he performed and made famous recordings of the Symphonie Fantastique—four that I know of, and all ready for streaming.

If I were to choose one, it would be the LSO/Philips recording. It has the most consistent playing, recording and orchestral style. His slightly later Philips recording with the Concertgebouw is equally famous and some say even better. Under the scrutiny of high definition and a very HiRes reference system, I heard some dodgy trombone intonation, and, dare I even think it, the Concertgebouw’s famous acoustic, a little too resonant. These are nitpicks, however, about a very fine version.

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Davis’ later LSO Live version is absolutely top notch but hampered by the dreadful Barbican acoustic. A shame, as it’s probably the most stylish on record with easily the finest ‘Un Bal’.

Interestingly, Bernstein’s famous French National Orchestra EMI is not available, but his almost as good New York one is. Also absent is my personal favourite version, Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony on DG. The Ozawa version has by far the best ‘Scène aux champs’ on record.

That said, we still have some classics and new recordings from which to choose.

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The Boston Symphony is represented on RCA conducted by Munch. This is a highly prized version of an original Shaded Dog vinyl, a mint original (very rare) commanding upwards of $1500! The performance is mint also. The recording’s excellence goes without saying. Choose the HiRes remastering version. It’s pretty amazing through Roon and a good DAC and speakers.

My ten picks are as follows and in no particular order:

  1. Bernstein/New York/Columbia

  2. Davis/Concertgebouw/Philips

  3. Davis/LSO/ Philips

  4. Davis/LSO/LSO Live

  5. Beecham/French Radio/EMI

  6. Dutoit/Montreal/Decca

  7. Argenta/Paris Conservatoire/Decca

  8. Boulez/Cleveland/DG

  9. Munch/Boston/RCA

  10. Rattle/Berlin/EMI

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Dutoit puts in a particularly suave and well-played recording with both orchestra and Decca recording team at the peak of their powers. But, have a listen closely to the ff chord at the end of the timpani introduction of ‘Marche’. Do you hear a wrong note, making the perfect cadence into a very loud dissonance? Or, maybe it’s simply out of tune. Either way, something’s wrong.

The Atualfo Argenta is so good, I included it even though it is not on Qobuz. Yet. The dodgy Paris Conservatoire Orchestra plays its heart out for the great conductor and the Decca recording is famous. Enjoy on Tidal. C’mon Qobuz, get this recording streaming soon.

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Sometimes I find Pierre Boulez a little too picky as a conductor, but here, with the fabulous Clevelanders on top form in a good acoustic on DG, he’s spot on, with appropriate tempos (if the ‘Marche’ is not a march, I place at the bottom of the pile). This is a keeper if top class, modern sound is essential. You’re an audiophile. Of course it is!

Along with Mozart, Haydn and Delius, Sir Thomas Beecham was famous for his interpretations of Berlioz. His legendary performance is not with his handpicked Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, but the French National Radio Orchestra. It must have been an event for the less than first class orchestra because they are fully on their toes. It’s a typically brilliant Beecham performance. While you have his recording cued, play the sundry Berlioz excerpts with his Royal Phil on the same recording. They are stunning.

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The three choices for this amazing work are very difficult to choose. My three are based on performance, recording and interpretation. Each of the ten choices, and those not available (Freccia/RPO, Ozawa/Boston), are so good, any one could be first choice. But three it is, each without idiosyncrasies or funky tuning/notes, recorded beautifully and played with fabulous style.

  1. Rattle/Berlin/EMI

  2. Davis/LSO/Philips

  3. Munch/Boston/RCA

The Rattle has a gorgeous ‘Scène aux champs’, on Ozawa’s level, and a perfectly paced ‘Marche‘. As a bonus, the EMI recording is very fine and the Berlin Philharmonic’s playing is without peer. Some may find the gorgeous playing a little to beautiful for its own good and prefer a performance with more energy. If that’s you, go with No. 2 or 3. The LSO and Boston playing is on par with the Berliners and you may like the famous interpretations better. We are blessed for choice. Enjoy.