Review by drdanfee December 17, 2005 (8 of 9 found this review helpful)
|BRILLIANT BERLIOZ IN VIVID SURROUND SOUND: MANIA & PATHOS. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Combined in this hybrid SACD disc is the trivium of three roads: Berlioz, superaudio surround sound, and the players themselves. For some years one of my favorite Symphonie Fastastiques has been the Vienna led by Colin Davis (not available now). I still find Gergiev a variable leader. Sometimes he surprises me at just how marvelous he is, and other times he lets me down, often by brilliantly pushing music which otherwise does not benefit from his fiery manner as it devolves into superficial barnstorming. Approach this disc as an experiment, then.
First of all, how is it, sonically? The good news here is that Berlioz, the High Romantic orchestra, and superaudio surround sound seem to have intertwined destinies. What the composer does to unleash the myriad colors and mysterious instrumental powers of the orchestra is captured in wide-ranging, vivid surround sound. The daring and innovation of Berlioz' orchestral genius is recreated, sonically, as never before. You can hear everything. Even when the band plays full-tilt, you do not have the front-to-back compression of the soundstage that happens in even very good CD versions. In softer passages, the tonal identities of the instruments are sensually engaging, even without a spot microphone having to close in on the players.
Secondly, how are we doing here, with Berlioz? Given the reputation of the Symphonie Fantastique as drug music, and as a young man's stormy love affair music, the work is a thrilling ride in a fast machine, as well as a garish narrative of the artist's loves and life. All to the good, Gergiev sticks to mainstream tempos in all movements of the symphony. He neither pushes the music too much, nor unduly retards it. The quick-witted balancing of the musical shifts from languor to mania, to regret, to excitement ... artfully recall a young man's life on a chemical rush while still remaining music. The Vienna Philharmonic is having a very good day, indeed, in this recording. All the departments of the orchestra are present and accounted for. Ensemble is virtuosic. Phrasing is volatile, now legato and nostalgic, now scurrying with that slightly artificial electricity that may remind a listener of one of their own magic carpet rides. Strings are Vienna strings: rich and creamy, laden with calories, massed to overwhelming effect in large passages, sweet and honeyed alone or in smaller groups. Woodwinds hold their own completely. Brass, well this is the Vienna Philharmonic brass.
The companion filler work on this disc is Berlioz’ third attempt to win the coveted Prix de Rome from the admittedly tendentious and conservative jury of the Conservatoire. Having achieved second place in the previous year's entries, Berlioz went on to set the text of Queen Cleopatra's dying monologue as his next attempt. Although the text is not necessarily great French literature, Berlioz let himself go, and wrote music of great emotional range and power, romantically conceived. The work is a showpiece for Berlioz, and for the singer. She must characterize all that passes before Cleopatra's vision as she dies, having just let herself be bitten by the famous asps of Egypt. In response to this music, the Conservatoire jury made asps of themselves: they awarded no prize whatsoever, that year.
In this performance, Olga Borodina takes on the role of Queen Cleopatra, and what a role Cleopatra proves to be for her. Her voice is fully equal to the musical demands, and although slavic voices can sometimes sound inappropriate for some French music, my ears tell me just how well and how lovely she carries it off. Her breath support is steady, her intonation on target. Not being a native French speaker, I cannot address the finer details of her handling of the French language. But to my foreign ears, she sounds like she is singing in French, and not Russian or Slav. The orchestra and its leader are with her every step of the way. You may end this disc, thinking that the jury were asps, indeed, to shun Berlioz the way they did. One wonders why the solo cantata based on the death of Cleopatra is not more often programmed than it is. Perhaps the solo voice genre has faded in its popularity these days. No matter, for the duration here, you can savor what the glory days of the genre were, as recreated by Borodina, Gergiev, and Vienna.
Finally, a last word about the hall. Recorded in the Grosser Saal of the Musikverein in Vienna, this disc captures the size and lush reverberance of its site, without losing even a whisper of the musical detail. The engineers have got it just right. The stereo versions are good. The surround sound version is just that much more. It's not that the extra channels call attention to themselves; but once you are used to hearing the larger air, you will miss the soundstage as it collapses back into standard stereo.
But whatever your home rig, don't be afraid to buy this disc if you like Berlioz. Five stars.
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