December 2001

Berlioz - Symphonie Fantastique
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra; Paavo Järvi, conductor
Telarc CD-80578
Released: 2001

by Bill Brooks

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality *****
Overall Enjoyment *****

[Reviewed on CD]I have to admit that I was pretty excited when I received this disc for review. Symphonie Fantastique has been at the top of my list for some time. I own many performances of the symphony both on vinyl and CD. Hardly a week goes by in which it doesn’t get some play. Leonard Bernstein described it as "the first psychedelic musical trip." Indeed the music tells the story of a less than stable musician who, in a fit of lovesick depression takes an overdose of a narcotic and finds himself on a very bad trip. It still amazes me that it was written only three years after the death of Beethoven. The piece is so visual, so much more like a twentieth century composition.

This reading shares top billing with some of my favorites. Everyone seems to love the Davis versions -- and what’s not to love? Davis conducts with a subtle, delicate touch that slowly draws the listener in until he or she forgets everything but the music. Be that as it may, sometimes he’s just too subtle for me. Symphonie Fantastique is a symphony of the demented and I think it sometimes benefits from a conductor who is a little more … frenzied. So it's no coincidence that I loved this performance by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, led by Paavo Järvi, a former student, not so coincidentally, of Leonard Bernstein.

From the first note to the last, the performance is extremely theatrical. What stands out, and should stand out, is the constantly changing mood. Just as the quiet woodwinds and languorous strings ease us in, we are suddenly soaring, the tempo unexpectedly increasing. Järvi’s control of the ever-changing tempos is masterful. Sometimes the orchestra sounds completely unrestrained, as if Järvi is not really controlling them, but rather letting them run. At other times, such as the "Scene in the Country," we can feel the hesitation and fear that Berlioz surely intended.

Visual is another word that fits this performance. This is illustrated so aptly in the "Dream of the Witches Sabbath," where all hell breaks loose. The loud pealing of the bells announce the presence of the demonic. Each instrument seems to take on an otherworldly personality. The thick bowing of the basses, the insistent horns, and the thundering percussion all lead us into the final "infernal orgy."

The sound is superb. We are again treated to Telarc's DSD process -- and, oh my, what it can do! The soundstage is endless, the dynamics are wide, and each instrument is heard precisely where it should be. The disc possesses a genuine sense of immediacy. You are there -- and who would ever want to leave?