BERLIOZ: Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14. Excerpts from Lelio.
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Michael Tilson Thomas, cond.
BMG RCA 68930 (F) (DDD) TT: 75:32

Toward the end of six years in the Fanfare galley, I put in a request for Berlioz and got flooded with Fantastiques,  none of which were kept when I traded my oar to do program notes bi-coastally. It took a decade of drying-out before I could listen to the piece without a migraine. First infatuation goes back to the early '40s -- Bruno Walter's 1939 Paris recording on Victor 78s (with a blank final side). But I felt straightaway that something was ponderously -- yea Teutonically -- amiss, without understanding what until Charles Munch arrived as a guest conductor in Cincinnati in 1947, and blistered the paint on the proscenium. (When Boston appointed him to succeed Serge Koussevitzky two seasons later, he made at least three versions for RCA). Munch was The Spoiler, even when he'd go out of control like some Dervish in throes of religious ecstasy. We never heard Toscanini conduct it, or Reiner do a broadcast (much less a recording), although his single Chicago programming between 1954 and 1963, like Walter's, was Teutonic, albeit without St. Bruno's flaccid rhythms or rheumy phrasing.

Thinking about it now, most of the Fantastiques (in concert and on discs) during my years of reviewing were disappointments, not least those by Pierre Monteux, although Paul Paray in concert was nearly as electrifying as Munch. In time, the "Waltz" movement became my private slide-rule (surely a subconscious spur when Ravel created La Valse). Unless a performance of it was dithyrambic, the rest suffered disproportionately. Which is a long way of getting to Michael Tilson Thomas' take with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (surely his today, rescued from the vegetarian solemnity of Herbert Bloomstedt's years in the Emerald City). Like MTT's earlier CDs from problematic Davies Symphony Hall, the recorded sound lacks both immediacy and tonal bloom, although it retains the suavity that Seiji Ozawa cultivated during his memorable SF seasons in the pre-Davies Opera House.


MTT honors all of Berlioz's repeats (had Maazel done so in Cleveland, his Telarc CD would have followed Munch on my personal Berlioz list). Everything is balanced painstakingly, and he makes that middle movement in the fields, almost invariably boring, sound very beautiful. Ultimately, though, this Fantastique is disqualifyingly decorous. What commands attention are two excerpts -- "Chorus of the Shades" (No. 2) and "Fantasia on Shakespeare's The Tempest (No. 6) -- from Lelio, Berlioz's "Return to Life" following the Fantastique's drugged-out hallucinations. Lelio is not, overall, as coherent or cumulative a creation as the Symphony, but it contains some lovely music that MTT makes the best of, abetted by Vance George's Symphony Chorus. Neither Jean Martinon of yore (on a Vietnam-era SD) nor more recently Pierre Boulez (Tilson Thomas' boss of yore at the Ojai Festivals in California) comes close in complete versions. However, paying full price for 19 minutes of music is your decision to make; just don't expect a Fantastique of comparable persuasion.

R.D. (Sept. 1999)