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Hector Berlioz's musical story of unrequited love embodies a sweeping range of emotions that proves a welcome challenge for conductors.
“Love is in the air”, as the lyrics of the pop classic profess, and indeed it was in 1830 when the 27-year-old French composer Hector Berlioz fell for the Irish Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson.
She barely knew he existed, although he was totally obsessed with her – a situation that led him to compose the Symphonie Fantastique, subtitled Episode In An Artist’s Life”. The music illustrates Berlioz’s unrequited passion for Harriet, which became the idée fixe (recurring theme) of the work.
The premiere of the Symphonie Fantastique took place at the Paris Conservatoire in 1830. Three years later, after a turbulent courtship, Hector and Harriet were married. The work was not heard in England until 1879 – the same year that the Berlioz enthusiast Thomas Beecham was born.
Our first recording is Beecham’s interpretation from 1959, which he produced with a French orchestra, as he desired an authentic sound. Beecham’s love for this music shines through; his recording is highly detailed, elegant and dark, nowhere more so than in the fourth movement, March To The Scaffold.
John Eliot Gardiner made an even more authentic recording with an orchestra of period instruments. He returned to the hall in Paris where the premiere was given and used the original 1830 orchestration, which includes two early brass instruments – a serpent and an ophicleide.
The dry acoustic is an acquired taste, but it does seem to draw out the necessary macabre element of the fifth and final movement, Dream Of The Witches Sabbath.
Colin Davis’s 1974 recording with the Concertgebouw Orchestra opens with a refined and graceful first movement, Passions – qualities that are evident throughout in the expansive Amsterdam acoustic.
The final two movements are appropriately high voltage, as is Davis’s live version with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Hall. The muffled sound is disappointing, but the woodwinds in the third movement’s Scene In The Country are arguably the most mellifluous of all our contenders.
The most recent recording here is from 2003 and features Valery Gergiev at the helm of the Vienna Philharmonic. The distinctive, sumptuous sound of the string section is brilliantly captured by the engineers, especially in the second movement, A Ball.
All five contenders are highly recommended, but the one that is truly fantastic is Davis’s exhilarating 1974 account with the Concertgebouw Orchestra.
The One To Own
Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique
Concertgebouw Orchestra/ Colin Davis
When you see the name Colin Davis on a CD of Berlioz’s music you can be assured of supreme musicianship. He is a true champion of the French composer’s work and this outstanding version rightly deserves the high praise it has received over the years.
Philips 475 7557
French National Radio Orchestra/Thomas Beecham
Beecham’s Berlioz at its very best.
EMI Classics 567 9712
Vienna Philharmonic/Valery Gergiev
Gergiev’s extensive musical canvas is both rich and vividly striking.
Philips 475 0952
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/John Eliot Gardiner
Authentic in every shape and form.
Philips 434 4022
London Symphony Orchestra/Colin Davis
It’s hard to imagine a better live performance of this classical masterpiece.
LSO Live LSO0007