INKPOT#64 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: BERLIOZ La Symphonie fantastique. BPO/Karajan (DG)
HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
conducted by Herbert von Karajan
DEUSTCHE GRAMMOPHON 415 325-2
Yes, it’s an old CD and might just get reissued soon.
by Chua Guan Ee
The orchestration of this large opus is massive in pure, Berliozian fashion: the composer calls for additional instruments to be used, among them, two cornets, four tuned timpani, two harps, tubular bells and two ophicleides! The five-movement plan of the work and the closely programmatic content of each movement were far-reaching innovations; not forgetting the original, new world of sound which Berlioz had created the natural result of expressing feelings and experiences and the activity of an intensely fervid imagination in music.
Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra deliver a performance that can be summed-up in two words: magical and beautiful. Every detail of the score is meticulously observed; and the Berliners create such a wonderful sense of atmosphere that is absolutely unforgettable due mostly to the conductor’s preoccupation with timbre. Karajan literally brings to life the rverie and the nightmare: colouring the dreamy aspect of the music with a lofty, faery-like sound; and incorporating the more intense, violent sections with great ferocity. Already, the opening figure on flutes and clarinets are seemingly woven from gossamyr threads, and a climbing oboe tip-toes silently across. The muted strings in the following section adopt a silken tone so controlled and refined, to sing for us a lovely, forlorn tune. In the exposition, the ide fixe is drawn out in long, unbroken phrases so characteristic of Karajan; as the lower strings gallop agitatedly below it, urging it along on a trail of passionate fervour. The repeat is not observed, and the turmoil in the development is greatly captured in the rising and falling, soft and loud passages, blown-up to expansive proportions in Karajan’s massive canvas. In the coda a tumult of swirling strings sweeps by like a whirlpool, and the prayerful chords that close the movement settle down like dust.
The second movement a waltz here becomes a dazed ‘klangfest’, as dizzying strings and “swimming” harps create a blurry ambience through a kaleidoscope of sound. You can almost imagine yourself as the hallucinating protaganist; witnessing the confusion of a masked ball in an overcrowded ballroom. The waltz sequences are drawn in long phrases; and when the movement ends, the inertia of the proceedings before is sure to leave one gasping for breath.
The pastoral quality of the third movement is successfully evoked: revel in the soundscape as the Berlin strings lull you into a rustic dream, intoning a melody of utmost serenity. The music is sculpted in long, arching lines that seem to flow seamlessly into one another: the viola/’celli melody is breathtaking as full-bodied strings sing in unison; and in the brief ‘storm’ sequence, details are expertly characterised complete with thunderous timpani-rolls and rasping tremolos. The lovely clarinet-solo near the end is flawlessly done, accompanied so sensitively by light, “drizzling” pizzicati.
In the fourth movement, menacing horn-signals and drumming timpani herald incoming danger; and suddenly all manner of chaos bursts forth with a tutti-chord slammed violently by the powerful Berlin brasses. Mocking bassoons announce a procession of blaring trumpets; before a blazing march takes place. The virtuosic Berliners now put on a different mantle as dreamy passion gives way to fiery anguish and derision.
Violins “hiss” and “laugh” diabolically, and woodwind cackle in the opening of the final movement, depicting a motley crew of witches and ghouls. The eerie atmosphere is shrouded in a mist of silent tremolandi and creeping basses; before hysteria is unleashed and all turns to madness. The sense of imminent insanity is here very well evoked; as the music accelerates and gets more choppy. The horror content increases in the ‘Dies Irae’ section, with solemn Ophicleides amidst tolling funeral bells. Witness Karajan’s vision of this hellish scene as he whips up a storm of symphonic splendour in the closing bars of the symphony; as tutti forces thump the music to euphoric finish definitely not for the weak-hearted!
This 1970’s recording was a product of the Berlin Philharmonic’s halcyon days with Karajan, before relations slipped into permanent decline. They respond fervently here to his artistic ideals, resulting in perhaps one of their most successful recorded collaborations. The fact that this performance is hardly mentioned in gramophone reviews baffles me: after sampling countless recommended versions of the work I still find myself hankering after the lulling strains of this one, despite the manifold qualities of later recordings. There are many excellent modern versions of this orchestral masterpiece, among them Myung Whun-Chung’s (DG 445 878-2), Boulez’s (DG 453 432-2) and Gardiner’s (Philips 434 402-2); but I sincerely urge all lovers of the Symphonie fantastique to earnestly sample Karajan’s.
In Singapore, this disc is available at or can be ordered from Sing Discs (Raffles City), Tower (Pacific Plaza & Suntec City), HMV (The Heeren) or Borders (Wheelock Place).