Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique / Janowski, Pittsburgh Symphony

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This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players. ----- Marek Janowski's Symphonie fantastique doesn't have the frenetic...
This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.


Marek Janowski's Symphonie fantastique doesn't have the frenetic excitement that a conductor like Munch brought to the work; rather, he is more of a modern-day Markevitch, analytical and pellucidly clear, but never clinical, and never at the expense of the music's character or emotional intensity. The first movement seldom has sounded so cogent, a function of the unusual fluidity that Janowski achieves by effortlessly natural phrasing and accentuation. Berlioz's second-movement ball floats by as if in a dream, which of course is exactly the point. The Scene in the Country is pure poetry, the distant thunder at the end scrupulously pictorial and vivid.

Janowski takes great care not to let the brass blare when playing forte in the March to the Scaffold, saving the real noise for the fortissimos. Simon Rattle attempted much the same thing but falls flat where Janowski succeeds brilliantly--not just because the Pittsburgh brass plays better, but because Janowski uses the lower volume in the melody to play up the grotesque accompaniments--the pedal tones in the trombones, and those insane bassoons. It's wonderful, as is a finale that, like the first movement, hangs together splendidly and rises to a thrilling climax without missing a single burp, screech, or nasty belch.

The King Lear Overture makes a substantial bonus, equally well done. Listen to those cellos and basses as they really dig into their parts! Superb sound in all formats, regular stereo and multichannel, completes this marvelous package.

– David Hurwitz,

Does the world need another recording of the Symphonie fantastique ? Many a Fanfare review has an opening line of this sort, but rarely does it apply more than here. I wish I could give this review proper attention by making detailed comparisons to at least a few of the many dozens of available recordings, but this is a standard-length review, not a dissertation. The attraction this piece holds for listeners will always draw us, and if nothing else, it is a superb test of the mettle of any orchestra and conductor. If you need to catch up on the status of an orchestra and its current leadership, there is no better single measuring stick.

This is a also a good choice if you want a modern version that sports state-of-the-art sonics (this is one of at least six SACD versions), high-gloss virtuosity, and intelligently brisk but unfrenetic pacing; you could do no better than this engrossing reading from Marek Janowski and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. The conductor has not always received the highest commendations in Fanfare , but I would remind readers that most of those mediocre reviews involve orchestras far less skilled than the PSO. Pittsburgh wasn’t recording much for a while, and those who take the time to hear what they have missed will be impressed.

One of the many admirable traits Janowski brings to the score is his ability to wisely pace the seemingly infinite dynamic profiles with which Berlioz peppers the score, not only in the usual pppp to ffff, but their use in the myriad combinations of instruments. There are many passages that have traditionally tempted brass sections to strike with maximum force in every climatic section in the symphony, but Janowski holds some decibels in reserve, and the final low brass outbursts gain immeasurably from this prior restraint.

This is not a revelatory interpretation (is this even necessary or possible for a work that breaks all the rules of its day and has been scrutinized within an inch of its life?), nor does it move with an intense dramatic thrust underlined by other conductors (Munch most notably). But it is highly detailed, with great attention paid to the sharp corners in tempo and the severe dynamic contrasts the composer requests. I wouldn’t deign to persuade anyone to swap this for their favorite Munch or Davis version (the emotional attachments are too strong for this to happen even if a demonstrable superiority is shown), but this one belongs on the shelf of any lover of this history-making score. A point should be made that this is not a live recording, a growing phenomenon among American orchestras as a blatant attempt to save pennies. Many critics favor this trend, believing any loss of exactitude is overcome by a sense of spontaneity. Nice theory, but I don’t buy it. The spit and polish heard here is not something you will hear from a live recording, even by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Le Roi Lear is not nearly as well known or recorded, of course, but it is hard to imagine a more vivid and picturesque reading. Low strings sound full and rich in the opening, and upper strings play their pizzicato accompaniments to the wind solos with uncanny delicacy and unanimity. A similar passage occurs much later, when the maestro brings the upper strings way down in volume to make way for the principal material in the middle and lower strings.

In the short time this recording has been released, it has generated no small buzz on the Net, and no doubt this will continue. This disc will provide hours of listening pleasure, and if you have a small stack of discs you use for testing audio equipment, I would consider making this an addition.

FANFARE: Michael Cameron

Product Description:

  • Release Date: June 29, 2010

  • UPC: 827949033865

  • Catalog Number: PTC5186338

  • Label: Pentatone

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Hector Berlioz

  • Conductor: Marek Janowski

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

  • Performer: Janowski


  1. Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14

    Composer: Hector Berlioz

    Ensemble: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

    Conductor: Marek Janowski

  2. Le roi Lear Overture, Op. 4

    Composer: Hector Berlioz

    Ensemble: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

    Conductor: Marek Janowski