Those of you classical music buffs who read the Penguin Gramophone Record and CD reviews for bedtime will know that only very special discs are ever awarded the coveted rosette. Why do I think this disc is so special ?
Well, for starters Michael T Thomas, the conductor, comes up with an educational yet very entertaining introduction and analysis of Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique", an inspired musical dream, if ever there was one. In an informal, partly serious, partly gossipy style, MTT narrates the the passion of Berlioz for Harriet Smithson, his muse and idee fixe for this melodramatic symphony, accompanied by high definition video of Paris and the French countryside. The analysis is not profound musicology, but just enough to enhance one's understanding and appreciation of the structure of the piece, and the character of this Byronic megalomaniac.
Secondly, this disc sets the present and future standards for video work for orchestral recordings, thanks indeed to state of the art camera technology and the great coordination between the score reader and the camera team. The video is spot on the various sections of the large orchestra as the complex symphony unfolds and it's as if one were reading the score, pictorially. This disc fulfills the the raison d'etre of classical music on video most elegantly, and that is that one should "see the music"
Last and most importantly, we are treated to a complete concert performance of the Symphony by the San Francisco Symphonic Orchestra, enthusiastically conducted by Thomas, in an audio recording to take one's breath away. In either Dolby TruHD 5.1 or Tru HD 7.1 format, the recorded sound is truly stupendous! The sound stage is full in height and breadth within which musical instruments or sections are boldly 'imaged'. In the 1st movement (Reverie), listen to the the leitmotiv with the high flutes and woodwinds underpinned by the growling cellos and basses. Some conductors emphasize the mysterious aspect of this passage, Thomas emphasizes the delirious ! The "Ball" is played wonderfully in a lilting, rhythmic fashion, with shimmering strings augmented to great effect by the two harps. The "Scene in the Field" opens with a delicious back and forth by the cor anglais, echoed by an oboe off stage, and the Alpine horn melody is then passed on to flute and then to the horns all the time counterpointed by the lower strings. Beautiful.I feel this is the best movement, quiet , pastoral and tender. MTT gives us one of the most exciting "March to the Scaffold" and the sound is really spectacular, especially the drum rolls. But the sonic pyrotechnics are at their peak in the last movement "Witches Sabbath". Audiophiles should have their hearts' delight with the fabulously recorded bass strings, screeching bassoons and flutes; the passage with the bells and the sonorous tuba is worth noting, but above all the drums. Tight,full and deep the drums give a visceral punch and on a system with a good subwoofer you can almost feel the air move. This has to be the best recorded classical music disc, period.
One may argue here and there over points of interpretation, but overall MTT gives a most satisfactory account and this rave review is in no small measure influenced by the fantastic audio and standard setting video/camera work. Friends this is a very special disc.