Imagistic Berlioz work calls for top conductors and orchestras. Superior sound -- and differing approaches -- characterize performances under batons of Barenboim, Dutoit, and Muti

Berlioz's ``Symphonie fantastique'' set the tone for the entire Romantic era in music. Instead of a composition based on tightly structured musical forms, Berlioz wrote an elaborately imagistic piece with a very specific program or story line.

A love-struck dreamer sees himself in five increasingly sinister situations as he tracks down his beloved, who is represented by the ``id'ee fixe'' (``fixed idea'') or main character theme. He even sees his own execution and the grimly exultant ``Witches Sabbath.''

This was all considered quite radical for its time and has always demanded the best of conductors and orchestras.

Berlioz's hallucinatory work has not been wanting for intermittently impressive performances.

Yet there has usually been some fault or other in even an outstanding reading.

For instance, there is the question of the low bells in the final movement. Berlioz specifies that if the bells can't hit the low C's and G's, several pianos should be placed on the apron of the stage, playing the double octaves in the score.

It is surprising how many conductors on recordings settle for standard tubular chimes that sound at least an octave or two too high.

In the matter of the cornet part (added by Berlioz after the premi`ere) in the second movement, ``Un Bal,'' most conductors still avoid it, even though it adds so much flavor to the music. And there are the repeats in the first and fourth movements. Those conductors who bother at all usually only honor the one in the first movement.

Daniel Barenboim's Berlin Philharmonic recording can be quickly dealt with. While there is no question that this is a brilliant ensemble, Barenboim has not really internalized the music. All his musical ideas seem like willed effects, rather than impulses that come from a real connection with the music. He honors only the first-movement repeat, eschews the cornet, and comes up with a reasonable-sounding low bell. The Berliners, it has to be emphasized, play stunningly for him. Their sound (as recorded in the Jesus Christus Kirche, West Berlin) is strikingly well captured.

Superior sound also distinguishes the Charles Dutoit reading, though there is no way the Orchestre Symphonie de Montr'eal can compete with the Berliners. They play well, even stylishly for their music director, and the London folks have, as usual, given the sound for this release (done in St. Eustache Cath'edral) their very best efforts. Like Barenboim, Dutoit honors only the first movement repeat, ignores the cornet, and finds a reasonable solution to the low bells problem. But there is a reserve to the performance, an almost self-conscious stylization, lacking the explosive volatility the music implies.

And then there is Riccardo Muti with his rejuvenated Philadelphia Orchestra. I was among those who had serious reservations as to the impact the Italian maestro would have as he tried to overhaul the Philadelphia sound nurtured for so many years by Eugene Ormandy.

In the past year or so, however, Muti has relaxed into allowing the orchestra to play with its richest timbre and creamiest colors when the music allows it. And he has given the overall ensemble a tonal pliancy that allows a more chameleonlike change to take place when the orchestra is out of the romantic or post-romantic idiom.

Muti gives an electrifying performance of explosive extremes with great washes of beauty in the poetic introspective moments. He honors all the repeats. He opts for the cornet in ``Un Bal'' and gets just the right sound out of the low bells.

The orchestra plays ultrabrilliantly for him, and there is a bracing clarity to the sound captured in the Fairmont Park Memorial Hall, where all Philadelphia recordings are now taking place.

(Information about the recording venue is fully credited on the LP jacket but ignored in the CD booklet. Also, Rory Guy's engaging note for the LP is replaced by a short, drab one in the CD booklet, followed by its German translation. There then follows a lengthy information-crammed essay by Pierre-Petit -- in French! So the English-reading CD buyer loses out on a good program note.)

Needless to say, Muti gets top honors here, and in many ways he and the Philadephia Orchestra offer the best stereo-age ``Symphonie fantastique'' to date. Certainly, it deserves to be considered the digital era's standard-setter in this work, and I doubt it will be bettered for many years to come.

Berlin Philharmonic, Daniel Barenboim, cond., CBS Masterworks, IM39859 (digital), CD-MK39859. Orchestre Symphonie de Montr'eal, Charles Dutoit, cond., London 414 203-1 (digital), CD-414 203-2. Philadelphia Orchestra, Riccardo Muti, cond., Angel DS-38210 (digital), CD-CDC 7 47278-2.

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