SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews
BERLIOZ: Le Corsaire Ov.; Sinfonie fantastique; Un bal Alt. version with cornet obbligato – Orchestre National de Lyon/ Leonard Slatkin – Naxos audio-only Blu-ray
Published on December 12, 2012
BERLIOZ: Le Corsaire – Overture, Op. 21; Sinfonie fantastique, Op. 14; Un bal –Alternative version with cornet obbligato – Orchestre National de Lyon/ Leonard Slatkin – Naxos audio-only Blu-ray NBD0029 (DTS-HD MA 5.0 or PCM stereo), 70:25 ****:
Ya gotta hand it to Leonard Slatkin. Not to long ago, he was truthful enough to admit publicly he’s none too comfortable conducting opera (as reported by Opera News). But then you can’t do everything brilliantly well, and certainly Slatkin’s illustrious stints with the St. Louis Symphony, National Symphony Orchestra, and now both the Detroit Symphony and Orchestre National de Lyon speak volumes about his success as orchestral conductor and orchestra builder. Until 2000, he was one of the strongest performers for RCA Records classical division, until the company abandoned America as a source for their orchestral recordings. (So now RCA is setting down an entirely unnecessary Schubert symphony series with Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra. Go figure.) Slatkin’s recordings of American composers with the St. Louis Symphony are still some of the finest readings on disc. So it’s good to see Leonard Slatkin recording again, now for Naxos.
It’s also gratifying to report that this recording of Berlioz with his new orchestra is a very good one. As it should, the program starts off with the overture, Berlioz’s Le corsaire, inspired by James Fenimore Cooper’s pirate novel The Red Rover. The composer wrote it in 1844, while staying in Nice, ensconced in a tower overlooking the sea—pretty inspiring in itself, one would imagine. Slatkin and his orchestra give it a properly dashing reading. On to the meat of the program: Sinfonie fantastique. The performance captures the fancy of the piece quite well, at least that of the more reflective passages. Slatkin’s tempi are a tad slower than I’m used to in the first three movements, giving them space to breathe and open out. Maybe the best movement is the third, Scène aux champs, where the extra serenity that Slatkin builds into the music presents a striking contrast to the agonized section toward the end of the movement, when the beloved returns in a vision to the young musician whose opium-induced dreams are the subject of this program symphony.
The fourth movement, Marche au supplice, has enough swagger, as well as menace, to make its points. The two tubas add some wonderful, comically flatulent commentary on the proceedings. The finale, Songe d’une nuit de Sabbat, has sufficient terror and mystery about it to convince, though it’s decidedly lower voltage than other interpretations I’ve heard (for example, Riccardo Muti’s hair-raiser with the Philadelphia Orchestra on EMI). Slatkin’s performance is a very balanced one—I’ve read one commentator who called it “classical.” I wouldn’t go so far as that (although the symphony was written only three years after the death of Beethoven), but as I hinted earlier, the performance emphasizes the romantic longing and ardor of its subject more than the wild pictorialism that some performances go in for. I think Slatkin’s is a valid take on the score, and I recommend it to those who see the validity of this approach as well.
As a bonus, Slatkin gives us the alternative version of the second movement, Un bal. I think Colin Davis, in his groundbreaking recording many years ago for Philips, was the first to include this version of the movement, with its colorful coronet solo. Most recordings omit this second version, which may make sense since it was penned a number of years after the first version and for a special occasion. Keith Anderson, in his usually informative notes, writes, “This was presumably to be played by the virtuoso A. J. Arban at the Liszt/Berlioz concert in Paris in May 1844.” Providing the second version as an addendum is a reasonable approach.
The sound from the orchestra’s home, the Auditorium de Lyon, is, like other Naxos Blu-rays I’ve heard, a little less bright than the typical sound on the SACDs Naxos produced before abandoning the format. It’s not at all dull, however, as the perky cornet tones in Un bal demonstrate. The perspective here is more distant than that on Marek Janowski’s well-received SACD recording with the Pittsburgh Symphony (PentaTone). Janowski’s recording (and performance) is more thrilling but also a bit coarser, with less sense of depth and spread across the sound stage than the Naxos engineers provide. In fact, the recording matches Slatkin’s performance well, and I find both recommendable. [Remember you don’t need a video display to listen to these audio-only Blu-rays, though you may have to press the Play button more than once…Ed.]