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CD Review

Hector Berlioz

A Tale of Three Fantastiques

  • Symphonie Fantastique
  • Overture "Le Corsair" *
  • Trojan March *
  • Royal Hunt and Storm *
Orchestre National de Radiodiffusion Française/Thomas Beecham
* Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Beecham
EMI Great Recordings of the Century (GROC) 567972
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I am constantly amazed at how changing the sound of a recording changes the gestalt. I guess I shouldn't be. Philosophically I know that the gestalt is greater than the sum of the parts, which means that the alteration of just one part can change the entire gestalt. Still, when I hear this recording and compare it with its previous incarnation I am just stunned. This offering was originally issued in 1986 on 747863 and was one of the first Beecham compact disc releases. I played it a few times but then it got shelved. For some reason the performance just didn't appeal to me, and I didn't have the LP to compare it with, so I assumed it was just a "miss" for Beecham. Now, however, it is a completely different matter, in fact this is a completely different recording. There is music here that is just plain nonexistent in the previous release. Strings have more articulation, solos can now be heard, the bass is firm and the timpani can be felt. The performance is now one that fascinates and involves me. Whilst I am not ready to place this as one of the great Fantastiques, it has moved up several notches in my estimation and is certainly among the best. If you have the earlier disc you simply must get this one and listen to them both. If you don't have the earlier one you must get this one anyway.

For what it is worth, after you play the earlier release turn the volume down before putting on this one. One of the changes is that the transfer is at a much higher level. When I put the earlier one on at the level at which I played this one I thought that perhaps something had happened to my sound system because I couldn't hear any music. If you crank up the volume, however, you still don't get any more music because it wasn't transferred at a level high enough to get at it. It reminds me of a saying an old friend of mine, Al Franz, used to have about LPs, "There's more music in those grooves than we heard."

The same can be said about the lagniappes. It is a whole new ball game; we ain't in Kansas any more.

The question arises however, as often in this series from EMI, is this truly a GROC? Well, as I said, my opinion has risen significantly on hearing this latest sonic incarnation. The problem is that this particular recording faces a stiff challenge, one it cannot meet, when confronted with Beecham's monaural recording from four years earlier in 1957 with the same orchestra (EMI 764032 nla). When you turn to that account, we have yet another completely different perspective. There is more fire-in-the-belly; Beecham digs into it in a visceral way that is absent in the stereo remake. The bells in the final movement are more menacing than the merely funereal ones later. In every movement Beecham is faster and he whips up a more frenzied, sinister, "Fantastique" performance.

The sound on this stereo recording is excellent, as I said, but the mono recording is very, very good.

So, I wish EMI had selected the mono performance for the GROC but this one is still very good and better than most. Maybe it is a VGROC.

Copyright © 2001, Robert Stumpf II