Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (Jarvi) - Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (Jarvi) – ‘Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique Op.14’ An SACD review by Mark Jordan

Cincinnati’s Music Hall is a grand old sprawling building built over what was once the burial site for area paupers. Indeed, it has been pointed out that either accidentally or intentionally, the balcony support posts in the auditorium are vaguely reminiscent of long, thin bones, many of which had to be moved when it was built, as well as in later renovations. What more could you ask for in a recording of Berlioz’ nightmarish masterpiece ‘Symphonie Fantastique’? Well, better acoustics and a more unbuttoned performance, perhaps.

I have been to a number of concerts at the Music Hall, and thus can attest that Telarc is to be saluted for making recordings there that sound much better than what an audience member can actually hear anywhere in the hall. The place is much larger than the average symphonic venue, and one senses that a great deal of sound gets lost above the stage and in the huge space over the audience. Another complication is that the stage and its support beams are all wooden, so the entire stage unit reverberates with sound, which helps power the loud passages live in concert, but also has a tendency to make the sound boomy and blurred. Telarc seems to have tamed the difficulties of the hall by placing their main microphones high above the front of the audience, giving one an idealized perspective of the orchestra.

But some aspects remain troublesome. The resonating wooden stage tends to wrap up the orchestra’s sound in quieter passages, resulting in a slight fogginess in the mid-range. This gauzy haze is mostly welcome, being fairly atmospheric, but on the other hand it is less evocative than the bright sheen in the famous recording by Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony on Decca. And the ultimate in spooky atmosphere is still the Philips recording from 1974 of the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis – one instance when the Concertgebouw’s boominess was acoustically perfect for the performance at hand. (That recording is not to be confused with the version Davis recently made with the London Symphony, which is less wild and in a much more prosaic acoustic.) In this recording the fog is more like a thin ceiling of low clouds covering the orchestra. When loud passages arrive, particularly in the brass, the sound leaps above the fog in sudden blinding brilliance. Perhaps not an inappropriate effect for Berlioz’ bump-in-the-night fantasies, but mildly disconcerting nonetheless.

Each level up the chain on this hybrid SACD improves the clarity, though. The CD layer is quite enjoyable, but the DSD stereo SACD layer notably improves the sense of where instruments are on the stage by increasing the front-to-back depth. Such depth might not matter in a lot of halls, but here it is critical, as the Music Hall has a rather deep stage. One of the nicest details of perspective, for instance, comes from the timpani. The work uses several, and in this recording, you can actually discern the layout of different sized drums around the players, some closer, some a little further back, some more to the right, others more toward the center. The multi-channel layer clarifies even further, although again I should point out the difference between the audience experience in the hall and Telarc’s idealized sound: The presence of a good-sized audience in this concert hall, combined with its spaciousness, means that there’s generally very little reflection of sound off the back and side walls when you’re attending a concert. Thus, my first reaction to the multi-channel mix here was that it was a little too aggressive, drawing a little too much attention to Telarc’s avowed “discrete surround sound”. But when I considered what the hall would sound like without an audience there to absorb the sound as it rolls through the auditorium, I realized that this probably does accurately portray the amount of reflection one would hear in the empty hall. In sum, Telarc has made an effective recording in a less than perfect concert hall.

As for the performance itself, Paavo Jarvi’s first foray with this orchestra captures much of his elegant touch for lively detail, but it remains restrained, as if conductor and orchestra are still testing the waters, not yet comfortable enough with each other to really cut loose. The good news is that Jarvi’s subsequent recordings are showing a quickly ripening relationship between conductor and orchestra. In the first movement, Jarvi moves things along suavely without rushing, even though his main tempo is brisk, holding this somewhat disparate movement together by flow, as opposed to the more symphonic gravitas of the performances by Davis or Dutoit. This approach underplays the nervousness of the music, which comes out sharply in the classic RCA recording by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony as well as in the quirky but always interesting Philips recording by John Eliot Gardiner, which came out in the mid 1990’s.

The worst thing about Gardiner’s release was ironically also its raison d’etre, for Gardiner wanted to record the piece on period instruments in the original hall where the work was premiered in Paris in 1830. That hall turned out to have such a small and dry acoustic, it almost ruined his feisty performance. It was also odd that in that performance, ostensibly duplicating the premiere, Gardiner elected to include the cornet solos in the waltz movement, which were actually added many years later by the composer. Jarvi also includes the cornet part here, like most performances do these days. I agree with the old French school, typified by Munch and Dutoit, who both omit the cornet part from this movement, feeling that it was a cloying error in judgment on the composer’s part. Having said that, Jarvi’s waltz is still characteristically elegant and poised.

Perhaps the finest moment in this performance is the third movement, where Jarvi shapes things more dramatically than in the early movements. The offstage echo of the opening solo is breathtakingly evocative, the notes hanging in the air. Comparing this opening to Telarc’s previous recording of the ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ by Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra in 1982 is revelatory. Telarc’s new recording is far more alive than the warm but un-atmospheric recording made in Severance Hall in 1982, with the offstage solo sounding not much further away than the onstage instrument. Most of all, the conducting makes a vast difference – Jarvi takes the work seriously, whereas Maazel seems to disdainfully treat the piece as a tub-thumping vulgarity.

Jarvi takes the repeat in the ‘March to the Scaffold’, applying vigor while keeping a fairly solemn tempo. Davis achieves greater ominous presence, by comparison, and Dutoit builds up a wilder head of steam. All three are preferable to the previously mentioned Maazel recording, which features not so much a march to the scaffold as a fifty-yard dash. For anyone seeking out greater solemnity, there is also the strangely monolithic and grim performance that Pierre Boulez recorded with the London Symphony in the 1970’s for Columbia (his later Cleveland remake on DG is much more conventional).

All the demons creep out howling in Berlioz’ finale. The woodwind glissandos are unearthly here, much better than the note-by-note glissandos Davis let the Concertgebouw winds get away with in his recording. Here the players correctly achieve the glissando by slowly depressing their keys so that the pitch bends down to the new pitch. And Jarvi is to be commended for finding low bells instead of the usual tinny bells heard on most recordings. Their prominence here doesn’t match the composer’s instruction to have them sounding from the distance, but then again the only one who ever seems to have bothered with that is Dutoit, and he used high bells. More seriously though, this is the movement where Jarvi makes his big miscalculation. As things build up in the wickedly brilliant round dance, Jarvi remains caught up in clarifying details at the moments where the piece should take off and ride wild. It is interesting to hear the subtle effects, and I certainly recommend the recording to anyone who wants to hear a lot of details that most conductors miss, but in the final analysis, the piece needs to become possessed by its own furious energy, and that never quite happens here.

So a missed opportunity, perhaps. Down the road, judging by the developing relationship between this conductor and orchestra, it might behoove Telarc to visit this piece again with these forces. For now, this release remains a good recording of a thoughtful performance, and that’s worth something in its own right.