‘Fantastique-Lélio’ Fantasy Fulfilled By Chicago, Muti

9/23/10 8:22:11 PM Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (C) Todd Rosenberg Photography
Muti and the Chicago Symphony recorded a Berlioz pairing live in 2010, recently released on CSO Resound.
(Concert photos by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy CSO)

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, Lélio: Gérard Depardieu (narrator), Mario Zeffiri (tenor), Kyle Ketelsen (baritone), Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Riccardo Muti (conductor). CSO Resound CSOR 901 1501, 2CD

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW – In September 2010, Riccardo Muti grandly opened his term as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with an outpouring of Berlioz – and not just any old Berlioz.  Symphonie fantastique was there, as it often is for high-powered conductor-orchestra teams eager to show off their stuff, but following intermission, Muti boldly programmed Fantastique’s neglected sequel companion piece, Lélio, ou le Retour à la Vie  (Lélio, or the Return To Life), in a semi-staged performance geared to Berlioz’s specific instructions.

Muti's Berlioz pairing on the CSO Resound labelFive years later, with the sense of occasion now just a memory for those who were there, that concert has been released in audio form on the CSO’s own label. In this context, the album has more value than as just a concert souvenir or yet another Fantastique, for it offers the curious collector a rare chance to experience these two works back to back with a superb orchestra and chorus. The late Pierre Boulez was the first to couple these works on records in 1967, and there have been only a handful of attempts since, almost all now out of print.

Muti previously recorded Symphonie fantastique for EMI in 1985 when he was in Philadelphia, an early CD that was a benchmark of digital recording technique in its time and is still competitive today. The first movement in Chicago is thicker in texture, falling short of the drive and explosive energy of Philadelphia in the climax toward the close, and the Chicago recording lacks the natural swinging grace of the Philadelphia in the “Ball” episode, though the “Scene in the Country” is eloquent and searching.  Both recordings plod to the Scaffold – which is fitting for the condemned hallucinating hero; the Chicago brasses assert themselves, but the rhythm doesn’t trip along as it did in Philly. The “Witches‘ Sabbath” is excellent in both versions, with an edge to Philadelphia in pizzazz and to Chicago for those brasses. One wonders if Muti was cannily holding back just a little on Symphonie fantastique, trying not to make Lélio seem anti-climactic.

Young Berlioz, a portrait by Émile Signol. (Wiki)
Young Berlioz, a portrait by Émile Signol. (Wiki)

Picking up where Symphonie fantastique leaves off, Lélio offers a weird patchwork of narrations interspersed with songs, choruses, and orchestral scraps assembled from Berlioz’s trunk. The opium-tripping Lélio (a nom de plume for Berlioz himself) wakes up from his nightmare and obsesses about the woman who eludes him, aligns himself with Shakespeare as he rages about his enemies, and ultimately tries to find comfort in music with only partial success.

Sure it’s a Berlioz ego trip, but from the perspective of 2016, Lélio looks like a precursor to the modern-day proliferation of one-man shows like Hershey Felder’s impersonations of Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin or Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain.  Scattered here and there is some great, rarely played music, especially the concluding choral-orchestral “Fantasia on Shakespeare’s The Tempest,” which is the equal of anything in Symphonie Fantastique. Muti is particularly persuasive in the fantasia, caressing the floating choral passages and putting a slight brake on the orchestral ones before kicking things into high gear in the terrific galloping coda. The “Chorus of Shades” and the “Brigands’ Song” show off the outstanding CSO Chorus in repose as well as hearty swagger.

Gerard Depardieu as Lelio (Todd Rosenberg)
Actor Gérard Depardieu negotiates Lélio’s mood swings with dignity and ferocity.

The theatrical atmosphere of the occasion can be felt in this recording. Veteran actor Gérard Depardieu negotiates the mood swings of the text with dignity and ferocity; the audience laughs when Lélio/Berlioz the composer/music critic tells the orchestra and chorus what he wants and doesn’t want. Muti and his large forces were placed behind a scrim up until the fantasia according to Berlioz’s instructions – as a result, sometimes the sound is a bit recessed – and you can hear the machinery creaking as the scrim rises.

If this Symphonie fantastique had been issued on CD by itself, it might have been buried in an overcrowded market of firecracker performances. But when Symphonie fantastique is heard together with its sequel, with the booklet’s English translations in hand, this persuasive performance of Lélio has the unlikely effect of making the unified whole seem greater than the sum of what is often thought to be two unequal parts. Try it sometime; you may not want to go back to just hearing Symphonie fantastique alone.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.