When these recordings were made back in the mid 1990's, the San Diego Symphony Orchestra was an excellent and vastly underrated ensemble in peak form. Bankruptcy forced a reorganization of the orchestra--one of the many testaments to this country's lack of appreciation for the fine and performing arts. Luckily the ensemble is playing again these days (known simply as the San Diego Symphony) though no longer under Yoav Talmi.
In these recordings, the orchestra works elegantly with the multi-layered orchestration that makes Berlioz so endlessly fascinating. It may take a couple of hearings in order to absorb all that Berlioz offers, and this disc definitely deserves to be heard more than once.
The good ol' fashioned overture to "Les Francs-Juges" may not live up to the more mature works of Berlioz that we've become used to, but it's nothing to dismiss either. The opening string passage is played with amazing delicacy and lightness of touch. The SDSO string section's wonderful work makes one wish this ensemble had recorded the orchestral works of Debussy or Ravel. Overall, Talmi paces the overture well. And while the energetic passages are handled well, I kept wanting a little more "oomph" to contrast with the quieter moments.
In the "Reverie et Caprice", the solo effort of SDSO concertmaster Igor Gruppman is delightful. Both orchestra and soloist aquite themselves nicely. Gruppman's sure hand as well as his lush tone and vibrato serve him well in Berlioz, a composer who seems to call for both grace and robustness.
Perhaps one of the quirkiest symphonies ever written, "Harold en Italie" is programmatic music at it's, well, most programmatic. Talmi and the SDSO, along with violist Rivka Golani, give us an elegant and technically masterful reading. Again, perhaps a little more Italianate warmth may have been in order--to match the story's Italian setting if nothing else.
To echo other comments on this conductor, Talmi's sense of pacing and his overall feel for Berlioz are first-rate. He elicits confident contributions from his orchestra and the effect is flawless execution.
This disc is recommendable for the genius of Berlioz and to hear an orchestra dispatch his music with finesse. Even though I would have wished for a little more fire in places, these recording are some of the finest in the French repertoire that I've heard on disc. Talmi and the San Diego Symphony Orchestra bring technical precision and clean, elegant sound to these works.