Recording of November 1962: Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique

Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique
Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Munch, conductor
RCA Victor LSC-2608 (LP). TT: 48:40

It is easy to forget that the hi-fi movements—the "March to the Scaffold" and the "Dream of a Witches' Sabbath"—comprise barely a third of the music in the Symphonie fantastique, yet when we listen to most of the available versions of this, we can understand why the first three movements are usually passed up by the record listener. Two are slow and brooding, one is a wispy sort of waltz, and all three require a certain combination of flowing gentleness and grotesquerie that few orchestras and fewer conductors can carry off. It is in these first three movements where most readings of Berlioz' best-known work fall flat. Either they are too sweetly pastoral or too episodic and choppy, or they degenerate into unreliered dullness.

Here, these three movements are less tortured-sounding than the intent of the music would seem to require, but they flow with a subdued langor that does seem to make a certain degree of sense and is probably a valid interpretation.

Fine, but what about the last two movements, the window-rattlers that many hi-fi enthusiasts will buy the record solely for anyway? The performances of these noisy tours de force can best be described as inspired or, rather, maniacally possessed. This is some of the most thrilling playing I have heard, under Mr. Munch or anybody else for that matter. The closing section is a real hair-raiser, that makes you want to stand up and shout Bravo, not only for Mr. Munch, but for everyone else who had a hand in this production, for it is quite possibly the finest stereo disc of an orchestra that has been made in the US. Thanks to an almost complete absence of technical gimmickry, strings for once sound like strings, brasses are round and biting, and the whole sound has the kind of richness and solidity I haven't heard from a disc since London abandoned the RIAA curve in 1959.

The low end is deep and tightly controlled, and the highs are sweet and extended, with that rare combination of silky sheen and guttiness that can only be reproduced through real top-end response. If there is appreciable dynamic-range limiting on this, I was not aware of it, so overwhelming was the whole effect. Surfaces were so quiet and groove tracing so clean that it was easy for me to forget that I was listening to a disc.

This is one the record industry in general might do well to look to as a new standard of excellence by which future orchestral stereo discs can be judged.—J. Gordon Holt

s10sondek's picture

Many thanks for continuing to post to Stereophile's website these vintage JGH album reviews. Such was the depth of JGH's knowledge that even throwaway asides and parenthetical comments pique my interest, such as this one:

"...since London abandoned the RIAA curve in 1959."

Egads! Really?

I have, of course, heard stories about engineers deploying alternative equalization curves in consumer phono preamplifier circuits, but assumed this was of limited utility as I was under the impression that all the major labels quickly adopted the RIAA curve rather early on in the LP game (pre-stereo for sure). Is my understanding incorrect? Should us vinyl listeners be invoking a different Decca equalization curve for London/Decca records? Are there any other labels (like Meloydia, Philips, etc) that may also require a different curve other than the RIAA standard in order to correctly play back?

(I guess I should insert a joke here about Mercury LP's requiring a presence-region de-emphasis to counteract the Telefunken M201 response curve, but once we get going on correcting for mic nonlinearities, the madness may erupt into a flame war that would likely never cease).

Anyway, could anyone please clear up this confusion on my end? Very curious.

the nightfly's picture

Ironic that, when RCA/BMG embarked on their massive Living Stereo re-release series on CD and SACD, they opted for the previously-unreleased 1954 recording of this work by these forces - excellent sonically, but comparatively tepid in the final two movements - and never reissued this "new standard of excellence by which future orchestral stereo discs can be judged" except as a short-lived, mediocre remaster on their ultra-budget Victrola label.

Fortunately, HDTT has since released a 24/192 transfer from a pristine RCA 4-track open reel tape, so we can now finally hear this recording in as good quality as we're likely to ever get.