Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique - Janowski

Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique - Janowski

PentaTone Classics  PTC 5186338

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral

Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique Op. 14, Le Roi Lear Op. 4 (King Lear)

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Marek Janowski (conductor)

Support this site by purchasing from these vendors using the links provided below.
As an Amazon Associate earns from qualifying purchases.


Add to your wish list | library


8 of 11 recommend this, would you recommend it?  yes | no

DSD recording
Reviews (4)

Review by John Miller - July 22, 2010

Reading Berlioz's entertaining and often hilarious 'Memoires', one encounters an ardent man, highly strung and sensitive; prone to sudden passions and overwrought reactions to religion, literature, music, landscapes and women - not necessarily in that order. Berlioz was thoroughly soaked in the sensibilities of Early Romanticism, but lived longer than many of his musical contemporaries, to be among the Late Romantics too. He was a pioneer in many respects, particularly influential in setting up what we now take for granted as a symphony orchestra. His 'Treatise on Orchestration' is still in use today.

Berlioz's first symphonic work, finally titled 'Symphonie fantastique', came from literary explorations, the diaries of opium-smokers, his frustrating obsession for Harriet Smithson (an actress with an English theatre company bringing Shakespeare plays to Paris) and the arrival of Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth symphonies in the French capital. Fermenting in his mind for several years, these elements finally came together during 1830 in a programmatic symphony which was outstandingly original. Acclaimed and reviled by his critics and audiences, he performed it in Paris (sometimes at his own cost) and toured it elsewhere in Europe, never publishing the manuscript until 1845. He made many changes to it before then, often adjustments of orchestration based on his experience at performing the work with often incompetent provincial orchestras. It is probably impossible now to reconstruct the original version. In 1832 he attached the Symphonie Fantastique to a prequel, the semi-dramatic work 'Lélio'. Finally, in 1855 he revised the programme attached to the music so that the events pictured in all five movements of the symphony were seen to be manifestations of an opium-taker's dream fantasies.

There is an abundance of fine recordings of the Symphonie fantastique; it has become one of the most popular pieces of classical music. Foremost exponents with a full modern orchestra include Munch, Beecham, Davis (1974, 2007), Bernstein/French National Orchestra, Dudamel/LAPO and my personal favourite, Muti with the Philadelphians. Muti's vibrant, energetic account is the one I find nearest to Berlioz's required state of delirium, with barely-controlled headlong abandon which keeps you on the edge of your seat. On SACD, I find Gergiev (Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique - Gergiev) rather heavy-handed, with dense, saturated textures where orchestral transparency is really required, and Järvi good with the drama but often rather rhythmically stiff, for example in the Ballroom movement. On the other hand, in this waltz he does include the obbligato solo for cornet in A, added by Berlioz later in life and which was not included in the 1855 published edition (and does not appear in the recent Urtext of the New Berlioz Edition either). The solo is played splendidly, and does lift the waltz greatly when it reappears after the motto theme. There are potential dangers with the cornet, though; Dudhamel's Ballroom scene sounds as though it has been invaded by a Mariachi band!

The other main choices available on disc are from several period instrument versions from Norrington, Gardiner (recorded in the auditorium at the Paris Conservertoire, where his first performance took place) and, recently, Immerseel/Anima Eterna. Of these (all RBCD), the best is probably Immerseel. In all of these period performances one can hear Berlioz's radical instrumentation in full measure. There is the difference between two natural trumpets and a pair of piston cornets, a pair of ophiclides (a vulgar-sounding predecessor of the tuba) and use of the little E flat clarinet which provides a squeeky approximation of the motto theme in the finale of the symphony (Shostakovich appropriated this instrument in his own symphonies). You will also hear the lovely gut-strung Erard harps, of which Berlioz requests at least four (two parts doubled). In modern versions, only two pedal harps are required to provided the required tonal depth.

Janowski served no less than 16 years with the Orchestra Philharmonique de Radio France, so he is well-equipped to apply the required Gallic temperament to the Symphonie fantastique. The finely-depicted first bars of the symphony, with the PSO's strings silkily muted, draws one in at once, and at over a minute faster for this first movement than the exciting Muti, there are heady changes of mood and dynamic, with many fizzing string figurations clearly derived from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

'At the Ball' also finds Janowsky whirling briskly away, at a tempo one could certainly not dance to with any poise, but the rhythms are well-pointed and articulation crisp, although I found it somewhat breathless, with slower performances able to make the waltz more lilting. There is no "lift" from a solo cornet.

'Scene in the Fields' is often underplayed by conductors anxious to get to the more spectacular movements following. Janowski and his players conjure a shimmering sun-kissed idyll (violins right across the sound stage), with a lovely cor anglais solo and atmospheric horn calls (taken from the Swiss 'ranz des vaches'). The are many echoes of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony here, even his quail bird impressions, but Janowski and his players are sensitive to Berlioz's expressions of poetic isolation from the Beloved in a drug-induced dream. Innovatory chords of timpani, one player to each of the four drums, provide a (for once) convincing rumble of an approaching storm, giving a tense few moments before the final peaceful bars. All in all, this long movement comes across with more charm and incident than in many other versions, and it is after all the musical heart of the symphony.

Janowski and his players are fully complicit with Berlioz's orchestral shock tactics in the final two movements. Aggressive brass, growling basses and stentorian strings mark the 'March to the Scaffold', but the full swagger and danger of both Beecham and Muti's versions are not quite achieved. Janowski's band seem to loose their rhythmic fire towards the end, becoming dogged, where Muti doesn't flag at all, and indeed renews his strength. However, the crepuscular horrors which mark the 'Dream of a Witch's Sabbath' movement are more clearly achieved by the Pittsburghers, bringing the symphony to a flamboyant and exciting conclusion. The orchestra manage to field two genuine-sounding church bells (and quite well tuned to C and G, not always the case) for the Dies Irae section of the Witch's Sabbath. They add much to the spooky graveyard atmosphere. The availability of suitable bells was often a point of frustration for Berlioz in his own performances, and in the score he indicates that in the absence of the bells, the lower octaves of a piano should be used - a sound which can be heard in Immerseel's Fantastique.

The make-weight here is, thankfully, not the usual 'Roman Carnival Overture' but the less often aired 'Le Roi Lear' Op.4, the longest of Berlioz's overtures. However thoughtfully played, both conductor and orchestra seem rather less convinced by the nature of the overture's material; these are not Berlioz's top-draw tunes, and the piece really relies on orchestral effects. Nevertheless, we are treated to another of the great Berlioz passions, that of Shakespeare's plays.

Set down at several live performances in the capacious Heinz Hall by "Soundmirror", Boston, the orchestra is closely observed, with the front row of cellos and basses sounding as if they were sitting in your listening room. There are only hints of the large hall's ambience and of the orchestra's depth, although there is a wide dynamic range - and plenty of detail, although you have to listen hard for it rather than it being part of a fully transparent sonic image of the orchestra. Beware of listening at too high a level - I found that the close sound became quite claustrophobic and aggressive, trumpets in particular being right in one's face and not allowed to bloom. The audience, however, are barely heard. There is very strong, deep bass from the gruff string basses (especially on the MC track), and the rather flat-sounding bass drum certainly makes its presence felt.

This symphony was meant for pure entertainment - certainly not to take itself too seriously. On the whole, Janowski's clear-sighted direction and committed playing from his Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra makes the piece fun, and well worth further playings. There is rather more of Berlioz in this performance than in many other highly idiosyncratic interpretations, and the recording is very fine, if not the most accurate image of an orchestra in a spacious hall that multichannel recording has provided. Well worth considering for purchase.

Copyright © 2010 John Miller and


Sonics (Stereo):

Sonics (Multichannel):

stars stars stars

Review by John Broggio - September 21, 2010

A deeply disappointing issue.

Despite an orchestra on obviously good form, Janowski secures very disparate results from the strings compared to the rest of the orchestra. Where woodwinds are vivid and pointing up details, brass are let off the leash (where it is called for) the strings sound subdued and quite frankly could have been at another performance for much of the time.

A great shame as things start brightly - the introduction has plenty of imaginative flair, with Janowski responding to the flow of the music freely and leading the ensemble as though a flock of starlings in the rubato he chooses. The following Allegro sounds as though it is going to be dangerously quick but fortunately it settles for just thrillingly quick! Phrases are tossed about between sections and the musical observers try to destabilise proceedings without success.

Where it starts to go wrong for this listener is in Un Bal - the first violins suddenly sound distant and uninvolved (not from a recording perspective) and the life evaporates from their music making and seem to lack the punch and vitality that the woodwind exhibit. How this could happen in the circumstances of a concert performance-based recording is inexplicable, although sometimes the upper strings sound (partially) muted - something not marked in the score - a very curious effect and not entirely convincing to my ears. Not using the optional cornet parts just puts the sour cherry on the mouldy cake!

The account of Scene aux champs is far better, largely thanks to the wonderful woodwind playing dominating the proceedings. The strings response to their colleagues seems strangely subdued but at least mirrors them partially, if not fully. The storm is truly thunderous but the cor anglais of Harold Smoliar doesn't manage the echo-ton so thrillingly applied in the best accounts and the strings are strangely forward at the movements' close.

The strings are more clipped than usual in the Marche au supplice and match the raucous bassoons (which have never sounded more tragi-comic than here); a shame that Janowski successfully asks the brass to use the very widest sound possible which flattens the life out of this astonishing movement. Some might also be disappointed to learn that the repeat is not observed. As the idee fixe is heard from the clarinet, it is strangely under-phrased and the brass completely obliterate the rest of the orchestra at the close - subtle it is not and after repeated listening, many will tire of such an approach.

The finale is programmed into 4 tracks: Larghetto-Allegro, Dies irae, Ronde du sabbat & Dies irae et Ronde du Sabbat ensemble. As at the end of the fourth movement, the heavy brass contributions are far from subtle (superficially thrilling but wearing in the longer term for this listener), which also applies to the bells of the Dies irae section. Still the woodwind are marvellous and punctuate and phrase everything with the utmost intensity. Somehow the strings sound underpowered as the music becomes ever more frenzied which is most disappointing. There is no doubt that this is a crack orchestral machine, it just a shame that it is not put to more musical use than here. A great example of how it can be done is fortunately to be found in Pentatone's RQR issue of Colin Davis (as he then was) stunning account with the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique - Davis).

The overture (Le Roi Lear) is very different musically to the symphony (how could it not be?) and from the opening, the whole string section suddenly sounds committed and alive. Janowski slowly and steadily builds the tension during the introduction before unleashing his forces to thrilling (and tasteful) effect in the following Allegro. The playing here makes one yearn for more and sad that so few of the overtures are widely available on SACD in recommendable accounts.

The engineering though is an outright triumph, with bass drum resonating throughout the body without the awful Telarc "punch", and all sections are crystal clear in glorious surround sound.

Copyright © 2010 John Broggio and


Sonics (Multichannel):

stars stars

Review by Mark Novak - April 21, 2011

I've given this one two listens - the first at moderate volume and the second at concert hall volume. I cannot muster much enthusiasm for this performance or recording. Janowski's way with this mighty tour-de-force is just too mundane and unexciting. In many ways, it is akin to Jarvi's lackluster peformance on Telarc SACD - the orchestra executes well (especially in light of this being a live recording) but Janowski fails to wring emotion from the notes. In such over-recorded repertoire, it becomes imperative that a new offering deliver something to distinguish itself from the crowd. Alas, not so here. The accompanying King Lear overture doesn't help matters either (nor would one be prompted to buy this for the filler).

The sound (stereo SACD layer) is somewhat veiled on the top (playing at concert hall level helped in this aspect) but also a bit muddy on the bottom end. I didn't hear any evidence of an audience but at the higher playback volume, I could hear the ambience of the venue coming through. The Jarvi beats it for recorded sound by a long shot. I expected more from Pentatone sonically. Disappointing.

Copyright © 2011 Mark Novak and


Sonics (Stereo):

stars stars

Review by Adrian Quanjer - July 26, 2011

Reading through previous views (and other views elsewhere), it struck me that recordings of this symphony have as many faces as there are tastes. Some adore the spectacular side, like the ‘March to the Scaffold’. Others look more for the spiritual content. This may explain to a large extent differing opinions: The fans of the ‘spectacular’ go for sound and seek to be blown off their feet in Multi Channel format. Those who like the poetry and the spiritual elements will appreciate a more considered and careful interpretation. This being the case, it must be said that in recorded music it is not always the conductor, but the producer and the sound engineer who play an important (and commercial) role in how a product is to be shaped for the market. The problem with this recording, so it would seem, is that it tries to cater for both types of audiences. Janowski, familiar as he is with this symphony, gives a French account, subtly following its ‘idée fixe’ in a mix of dream and reality, using the outbursts to create a contrast between soul and fate, whereas the sound engineers lifted out the ‘blows’ and the ‘booms’ for the market. This could explain why the strings seem to sound muted at times and, by the same token, why the kettle and bass drums slam out of the subwoofer, most notably in the last two movements. (I’m not sure to what extent Pentatone/Polyhymnia have been involved. The notes say that balance and recording has been done by ‘Soundmirror’, Boston, Massachusetts). But all in all, and in spite of its ‘dual’ approach, I find the performance by conductor and orchestra alike a rewarding experience, surely if one takes into account that these are live recordings. The quality of the Pittsburghers is striking. Take for instance the first violins, muted or not. They play as if there is only one. Extraordinary for such a large string section. Summing up: The combination of French mystic poetry and American sound is, in the end, perhaps not so bad in comparison to other recordings on SACD. Do listen and judge for yourself.
Adrian Cue,

Copyright © 2011 Adrian Quanjer and


Sonics (Multichannel):

stars stars