BERLIOZ: Symphonie fantastique, op. 14; La Mort de Cléopâtre (The Death of Cleopatra—1829 cantata). Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra with Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano (in the cantata only). (EMI 16224).
Certain orchestras, irrespective of changes in personnel and in who is on the podium over years and even decades, have definite characteristics that seem never to change. Or perhaps it is the case of one music director putting a definite stamp on certain aspects of an orchestra’s playing: the influence is so strong as to be pervasive and abiding far beyond his personal influence. The Berlin Philharmonic’s string section seemed to receive its character from Herbert von Karajan—a full, rich, warm sound that is the first thing about the orchestra that captures the attention and which seems to dominate all kinds of textures and instrumental combinations at all dynamic levels. This is abundantly apparent in Simon Rattle’s new Berlioz disc, recorded at the modernistic Jesus Christus-Kirche (a favored recording venue going back to the days of Furtwängler) in the Berlin suburb of Dahlem at the end of the 2007-08 season. It is not simply the abiding character of the Berlin strings, but Sir Simon’s careful attention to phrasing and articulation of these parts, that entices. It is clearly evident from the beginning. Notable in the so-called development section of the first movement are the electrifying blending of strings and brass and the clarification of the tricky 2-against-3 patterns (quarter-note triplets in the timpani against moving 8th notes all over the place) in a delightfully unfussy way.
Rattle uses the optional cornet parts in the waltz movement and the fourth movement (Marche au Supplice). He observes the oft-skipped repeats in the first movement and in the march. The march is intense but unhurried. The finale—a depiction of a witches’ Sabbath—with, at the climax, a full-blown double fugue—is beautifully calculated and a wonderful combination of drama and clarity. The brief but highly effective episode of col legno (with the wood of the bow) playing toward the end, once again, shows the Berlin Philharmonic’s strings in top form. And the eruption of timpani toward the end of Scène aux champs is truly frightening, as Berlioz meant it to be.
Buoyed by a second-prize finish (with the customary cantata submission) in the Prix de Rome in 1828, Berlioz decided to go forth in 1829 with a piece in which he was more like himself. The conservative jury wasn’t buying. In this underplayed work, the lyrical side of Berlioz is juxtaposed with the dramatic. Some of the musical material was later used in the opera Benvenuto Cellini—but the Symphonie fantastique is also full of self-borrowings: the C-minor introduction comes from an earlier song, the idée fixe theme running through all five movements from the cantata Herminie, the Scène aux champs theme from that of the Gratias agimus of the Mass of 1827—and so on. Susan Graham offers a very musical and confidently assertive yet straightforward evocation of the Frenchified Shakespearean persona. There is some influence of Gluck (for whom Berlioz professed great admiration) in this cantata, but there is a sustained excitement and sense of dramatic progress which the German-born composer, in my view, never quite achieved. Once again, the Berlin strings (and Ms. Graham, in no small measure) show their mettle in the climactic suicidal passages.