Two popular works recorded eleven years apart from the same orchestra and conductor might seem a dangerous venture for any recording company. But one must remember straightaway that the disc under review does not include any commercial recordings. The performances were tapings of two live concerts, the Tchaikovsky fantasy was performed on the 9th of September 1960 at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, while the Berlioz symphony was set down at the Proms on the 9th of September 1971.
Let me say straight away that I was bowled over by the searing intensity of these interpretations. Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique never sounded more passionately dramatic. It is true that the stance taken by Rozhdestvensky is somewhat late-Romantic and he also imposes certain personal interventions on the score, but these slightly intimate views only enhanced my appreciation of this truly 'Fantastique' invention to come out of France during the early years of the Romantic era.
This is indeed a compelling and masterful reading that obliges one to stand up and applaud vociferously just as the audience at that Proms concert did. The Leningrad Philharmonic play with superlative virtuosity and boundless vigour, responding marvellously to Rozhdestvensky's super charged and dynamic interpretation.
Tchaikovsky's 'Francesca da Rimini' never sounded more terrifying and desperately tragic. The vision of Hell in Liszt's 'Dante Symphony' although highly descriptive and at times highly turgid is a pale shadow when compared to the Tcahikovsky version, especially in the hands of Rozhdestvensky, who delivers a truly infernal reading of hopeless fear and eternal damnation. One can almost smell the stench and smoke of burning bodies being consumed because of their iniquities.
The middle section, depicting the love of Paolo and Francesca, is on the other hand an intoxicating embrace full of sweetness and longing, although one can also feel a strong hint of inevitability. As in the Berlioz, the Leningrad Philharmonic rise majestically, to the inspiration of the then 29 year old conductor particularly in the coda where the music is driven headlong into oblivion. A disc to return to time and time again.
Copyright © 2005, Gerald Fenech