Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique; La mort de Cléopâtre

Susan Graham; Berlin Philharmonic/Simon Rattle (EMI 2 16224 0 3)

24 September 2008 3 stars

Rattle BErliozAlthough it seems intellectually lazy to point out that Berlioz isn't natural territory for the Berlin Philharmonic – their pre-eminence amongst the world's orchestras speaks for itself, so there's no reason to think they can't play a French symphony – it is nevertheless difficult to hear this new recording of Symphonie fantastique and feel that something isn't missing.

Sir Simon Rattle, too, lacks any obvious connection with the composer, though his abilities in other French music show that he can conjure up the right sensuality of tone in the right circumstances. The problem is that with so many other accounts of the work readily available on record – my favourites being Sir Colin Davis' second LSO recording and his reading with the Concertgebouw – Rattle and the Berlin Phil just don't present enough of a case for preferring their version over various others.

Though Rattle is one of my favourite conductors, his tendency to pick over details drains the music of its inherent extroversion – especially in the final two movements – and causes an irritating ponderousness for me here. Eschewing a superficial display of technical prowess is admirable, but the success of such an interpretation is only partial.

Without doubt, the opening movements are very finely moulded indeed. Rarely have the big diminished chords of the introductory section of the first movement been so painfully accented, and Rattle ensures that the tension between consonance and dissonance in the initial theme of the fast section is always keenly observed. Still, the performance lacks the excitement of Davis, and the music occasionally sounds enervated; even allowing for a refusal to accept the programmatic element of the work, it does not feel as though Rattle has fully communed with the obsessive character of the movement.

The lilting waltz of the ball scene in the second movement obviously finds the orchestra on something like home territory, and to hear the utterly ravishing string section sing their way through the music is a joy. They understand exactly how to use rubato to its most expressive potential, and this time the atmosphere of the whirling ballroom is unequivocally evoked.

Beauty is everywhere, too, in the pastoral second movement, where again Rattle's control of details, and the orchestra's ability to carry out his wishes, is superb. The conductor also brings the wistful, melancholy element of the music to the fore, and the transition into the fourth movement is well handled.

However, the Marche au supplice is just too slow to create the necessary effect. True, Rattle makes us hear the contrapuntal string passages as never before, but rather than making the march more doom-laden, the tired speed just drains away all tension and excitement; not only does he not arrive at the scaffold, there's no air of being compelled to go anywhere near it.

The string pizzicatos, off-stage bells and warm brass chords of the Witches' Sabbath are a far more convincing evocation of damnation than the previous movement. Here at least Rattle lets the orchestra off the reins a lot more than before, even if the performance still sounds a little earth-bound.

Surprisingly, the finest item on the disc is La mort de Cléopâtre, Berlioz's dramatic cantata written during his struggle to win the Prix de Rome during the late 1820s. Everything about it is bold, from the orchestration to the word-setting, and the rigour of Rattle's approach in this recording is matched by an alert, impassioned rendition of the vocal part by Susan Graham. The Méditation is especially fine, simply spine-tingling as Graham and Rattle unite to tell the final moments of the dying Cleopatra; it's just a shame that the Symphonie fantastique captures this quality only intermittently.

By Dominic McHugh