Recording of the Week Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique from Ticciati and the SCO
I’ve been enormously impressed by the young conductor, Robin Ticciati, ever since I heard his first recording with the Bamberger Symphoniker in 2010, and so it is with great pleasure that I have been listening to his new recording of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Subtitled An Episode in the Life of an Artist, this programmatic piece tells of a man consumed with passion for a woman (supposedly mirroring Berlioz’s own obsession with the Irish actress, Harriet Smithson) who, believing his love to be unrequited, attempts to poison himself with opium. In his drug-fuelled state he imagines that he has killed his beloved, and is then a spectator at his own execution, after which follows a diabolical Witches’ Sabbath.
One can imagine how bizarre the piece must have seemed to the audience at the 1830 première (it was, after all, only three years since Beethoven’s death), and time has done little to diminish its effect, particularly in the last movement with its infamous passage for col legno strings (where the notes are played with the wood of the bow rather than the hair), the lugubrious combination of two tubas and four bassoons intoning the plainchant of the Dies Irae, and deliriously orgiastic clarinet solos representing the nightmarish return of the artist’s beloved.
The very best performances are ones where the conductor manages not to lose sight of the overall structure amid such a panoply of grotesque gestures, and in this respect Ticciati is spot-on. I must admit that I normally get pretty bored during the long central movement, Scène aux champs, with its extended depiction of two shepherds piping to each other, but not here: Ticciati’s impressive gift for wonderfully shaping each phrase kept me interested from start to finish. One of Berlioz’s innovative touches in this movement is a passage for four timpanists, representing the thunder of a gathering storm. Usually it just seems like an extra bit tacked on, but Ticciati succeeds in integrating these portentous rumbles as part of the movement’s span.
Ticciati has clearly found his ideal ensemble in the SCO: as he said in a recent interview, the first and third movements possess “a special kind of grace, to do with the uplift on the quaver upbeats, which I could never get with big orchestras”. Being a chamber orchestra, the string section is relatively small, and while occasionally I found myself missing that last ounce of bloom that a larger ensemble can bring, the advantage is that Ticciati is able to reveal many inner details. While he isn’t afraid to bring out the more outlandish elements of Berlioz’s orchestration (I very much enjoyed the snarling trombones and some excellent low-horn playing in the fourth movement), he has clearly thought about the minutest matters of balance, such as the initial presentation of the beloved’s melody where you can, for once, actually hear that a flute is playing with the violins.
I mentioned the tubas earlier. Originally, Berlioz wrote not for this instrument but for the ophicleide, a sort of keyed bugle that is essentially obsolete nowadays. Normally, bass tubas are used, but Ticciati opts for one tenor and one bass tuba. Although initially sceptical, once I heard the result I was won over. There is a notorious ascent to a high B flat for the first tuba just before the very end, a note outside its ‘normal’ range (being a tuba player myself, I can attest to the precariousness of these few bars!). With a tenor tuba, however, the phrase soars with a fullness of tone that I hadn’t heard in any previous recording.
One other, slightly nerdy point I should mention: the autograph score of the second movement contains a part for solo cornet, added by Berlioz at a later date for the great player, Jean-Baptiste Arban. Because of this somewhat spurious authenticity, some conductors leave it out, and Ticciati is among their number. It may not bother you that it is missing; personally I’m always slightly disappointed whenever it is omitted, as I feel it adds an extra virtuosic frisson to the proceedings. However, this was for me a minuscule blemish on an otherwise absolutely outstanding disc – thoroughly recommended indeed!