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CD Review

Hector Berlioz

  • Symphonie Fantastique
  • Roman Carnival Overture *
Orchestre Symphonique de Paris/Pierre Monteux
* Concerts Colonne/Gabriel Pierné
Opus Kura OPK2108
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Once past the very heavy hiss and crackle of the 1930 mono, you'll find a surprisingly intense Fantastique on your hands. Monteux was a model of French elegance, but let's not forget that he was also the first champion of Stravinsky's ballets. and a great advocate of Tchaikovsky. The man could let his hair down and dig in. That's just what happens here. This performance has always been overshadowed by the other four that he recorded later in his career, but this is arguably the most exciting of them all. It also happens to be the only one he made in France, if that counts for anything. The present recording has been available before, namely on Music and Arts, and was well received then. This Japanese issue from Opus Kura sounds quite good given the vintage, and historical buffs will love it.

Monteux really does paint a vivid picture, and secures really fine orchestral playing given the time period. I really appreciate the amount of flexibility that Monteux brings to the score. He's not afraid to take numerous liberties in terms of dynamics and phrasing, allowing for maximum contrast within each movement. While the standard of playing is understandably lower than we expect today, balances are unexpectedly realistic given the time period, and clarity between sections is admirably maintained. I read a review that stated Monteux's scores were largely destroyed during WWII, making efforts like this nearly impossible later on, but I don't have the research to confirm that. What I can confirm by ear is that rarely did the maestro give us anything quite this frenzied and spontaneous in his later years. There is excitement aplenty – I was amazed at how genuinely engrossed I became as the performance progressed – and the conductor's willingness to take risks easily trumps the sour brass or hesitant string player here and there. No, this is not going to supplant great readings by Paray, Munch, or Davis, nor does it even match the tamer readings of Ormandy or Martinon. It does show a side of this artist we rarely see, and on his home turf. Excellently restored (in that I vastly prefer the hiss to some washed out re-mastering), this is a reading to treasure.

Unfortunately, I find the coupling rather tepid by comparison. The Roman Carnival isn't a challenging work, strictly speaking, but if you are going to play it, it would be best to play it well. That doesn't entirely happen here, and Pierné doesn't hold a candle to Monteux in terms of podium presence. Nor does his Concerts Colonne especially impress in this undated 30's rendition. I'm not entirely sure why it's here, especially since there are buckets of monophonic Monteux that could have easily made it here. No matter, the Fantastique is the main attraction, and certainly worth hearing.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman

Trumpet