What can be said about Berlioz’s
Symphonie fantastique that hasn’t been said
a thousand times? It is one of the great masterpieces of symphonic
literature, perfectly refined and elegant at times, yet straining
to burst with its explosive intensity. It was written by a young
man, not yet 30, as his first symphony.
It tells a story of love,
as so many great pieces do. The opening movement has the protagonist
falling in love with a woman whose theme remains throughout
the work. The second movement has our young man finding himself
disturbed by the image of his beloved at a ball. The third movement
finds him in between comfort with her and a suspicion that she
is deceiving him in some way. The fourth movement finds the
young man sick on opium and dreaming that he has murdered his
beloved. Finally the last movement reinvents the idée fixe into a distorted theme of funeral
music and orgiastic passion.
With no disrespect to
Mahler or Shostakovich, it is quite possibly the best ever first-symphony.
On this recording, the
symphony is followed by two movements from one of Berlioz’s
lesser works. Lélio ou Le Retour à la vie is an
enjoyable piece with echoes of the Symphonie
energy, wit and vitality. It is, however, more of a theater
piece than a musical one. Berlioz originally intended the orchestra
to be hidden behind a curtain during the performance. The protagonist,
Lélio, is a broken man who is recovering from opium addiction
and goes through the personal turmoils of personal injustices and failure in love. Finally
he ponders redemption through art.
There are two selections
from this work. The first is an adaptation by Berlioz of his
own cantata La Mort de
Cléopâtre, and is an intensely
dramatic piece. The choir broods and explodes in turns throughout
this rather dark and melodramatic work. The second selection
is a fantasia based on William Shakespeare’s The
Tempest. While it works through a great many moods and takes
several turns, it finalizes in a rambunctious blast towards
the conclusion. We are able to see Lélio energized and optimistic
as the work closes on an up-note.
Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony do a wonderful job of
capturing the flavor and flair of the Symphony. Thomas is well
suited to the extroverted and extravagant world of Berlioz’s
music. He too has a penchant for the fantastic tempered with
an attention to detail and rootedness
derived from an artistic life.
The performance was approached
with a great deal of sympathy and understanding, as well as
a nearly ribald virtuosity exploding from the symphony. Their
virtuosity is clean and unquestionable. The technical work on
the recording is very good, using the 24 bit sound resolution
to its fullest. The recording is well done and among the better
As a rule of thumb, it
is difficult to highly recommend a particular recording of a
work that has been recorded as often as the Symphonie fantastique.
However, this is a rendition that deserves to be heard. If you
don’t have a favorite recording already, this is a disc that
you should consider.