There's never been a ``Symphonie Fantastique'' like this before - not, at least, since the composer's day. Among three new releases just out from EMI/Angel, all featuring Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players, there's a landmark recording of the Berlioz work, marking the first time it has been recorded with instruments like those used in the 1830 premi`ere.
Norrington's period-instrument strings may not have the red-bloodedness of, say, the Philadelphia Orchestra recording with Riccardo Muti. But their crisp articulation and lack of vibrato not only make their sound more focused but allow the woodwinds a more active and colorful role in the performance.
Particularly unusual is that the brass instruments do not blend homogeneously but exhibit individual personalities, creating a fantastic spectacle for the imagination.
Berlioz's tempo markings, unlike Beethoven's, are hardly controversial. With ``Symphonie Fantastique,'' Norrington avoids the problems he runs into when taking a literalist approach to Beethoven's metronome markings. These problems continue to crop up in the new Beethoven releases, particularly in Norrington's featherweight reading of the ``Eroica'' Symphony, in which the funeral march is taken at breakneck speed and reduced to little more than a joke.
The last of the new recordings contains the first two Beethoven piano concertos, with Melvyn Tan as soloist on the fortepiano. The classically modeled Piano Concerto No. 2 (actually the first Beethoven composed) is done quite nicely, but for the much more demanding and expressive Piano Concerto No. 1, Tan's immature understanding of the work shows through in a performance that is, at best, bland. Steven Lubin's recording, with the Academy of Ancient Music under Christopher Hogwood, is far superior.