Symphonie Fantastique

After a busy weekend I’m gradually trying to catch up on last week’s happenings. One thing I haven’t had time to mention yet is that on Thursday night I went to a concert at St David’s Hall in Cardiff that featured the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under the direction of Xian Zhang. The orchestra repeated the programme the following day (Friday) at the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea, so you can listen to it it for the next month on the BBC iPlayer.

The main item on the menu was the Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz. I have to confess that I’ve been a bit prejudiced about this piece since I was at school. I had a music teacher who adored Berlioz and wouldn’t shut up about him, basically telling us that he was the best composer ever. I didn’t buy it then, and despite a very fine performance on Thursday, I still don’t buy it now. It’s n0t that Berlioz is short of musical ideas or technical accomplishment: there are some memorable passages in this Symphonie, including the dance-like theme of the second movement, and the  “march to the scaffold” in the fourth movement.  I’m not at all averse to big loud symphonic works, either, as regular readers of this blog will know. My difficulty is that it’s all a bit too obvious. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales is a fine orchestra and I enjoyed their playing enormously. I particularly appreciated seeing the  percussion section get a good workout! I was also impressed by the conducting of Xian Zhang who gave a sense of shape where previously I’d heard only bombast. It’s the composition that’s the problem for me, though. Berlioz lays it on with a shovel, but I still think this is a rather superficial piece.

Before the Berlioz, in the first half, were two much more interesting pieces. The first, a piece called Internet Symphony No. 1 “Eroica” by Tan Dun is less than five minutes long is a hugely entertaining blend of Eastern and Western musical influences.

After that appetizer we had a dazzling performance of the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini by Sergei Rachmaninov with soloist Stephen Hough at the piano. This piece comprises a set of 24 variations on a them from one of Paganini’s caprices for solo violin.

Incidentally, the “theme by Paganini” used as the basis of this piece is the same one that was used for the musical introduction to the TV programme “South Bank Show“, although I think quite a lot of people know that.

The Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini is piece full of contrasts: sometimes pyrotechnical, sometimes lyrical. My favourite section is the 18th variation, in which a lovely romantic melody emerges and is picked up by the whole orchestra in a manner that’s very characteristic of Rachmaninov. It gets me every time, but then I am a terrible softy. You can hear this played by Stephen Hough at the Proms in 2013 here (about 20:20 into the video). Incidentally, this tune is just an inversion of the theme transposed into a different  key and slowed down.

The Rachmaninov alone was worth the cost of the ticket! It’s such a shame that he wrote so little music after emigrating from Russia to the United States in 1917. He made a living doing concert tours after that, and had little time to compose. Thank goodness he found time to write this, though!

We also had an encore by Stephen Hough that provided yet another contrast. Debussy’s Clair de Lune is a very familiar piece, but it provided an appropriately light and reflective epilogue to the first half.

I will persevere with Berlioz, I suppose, like I do with Brahms, but I think I’m going to be hard to convince. If anyone can suggest a piece by Hector Berlioz that they think will change my mind, please feel free to suggest it via the comments box!



11 Responses to “Symphonie Fantastique”

  1. You might want to try his Te Deum. The first time I heard it, I was driving and was so taken by it that I almost ended up in a ditch. It’s the only composition of his I’ll gladly listen to.

  2. Steve Warren Says:

    The Roman Carnival overture always puts me in a good mood. But I love the Symphonie Fantastique, so it may not have the same effect on you!

  3. Bryn Jones Says:

    It’s remarkable that the Symphonie Fantastique was written about six years after Beethoven’s Choral Symphony.

    Among the more subtle works by Berlioz are the song cycle Les Nuits d’été and the oratorio L’Enfance du Christ.

    One Berlioz performance I regret not going to was of the Grande Messe des Morts by the London Symphony Orchestra with Sir Colin Davis in St Paul’s Cathedral, London, several years ago. Of course, it would have been very overblown, but it must have been spectacular.

  4. John Peacock Says:

    I agree to an extent: I find Berlioz a frustratingly inconsistent composer, whose works often feature moments of striking originality and beauty, but somehow tend not to sustain my interest. I have similar feelings about Liszt (although he certainly wrote at least one masterpiece: listen to Martha Argerich’s rendering of the piano sonata).

    It’s possible the Symphonie Fantastique is also a masterpiece, but the poor thing is played so often that I find it hard to judge now. If a law was passed forbidding live or recorded performances for a decade, I suspect I’d be pretty keen to renew acquaintance with its undeniable originality.

    Otherwise, I too am keen on nuits d’ete (get the recording by the countertenor David Daniels) and the Te Deum (although the opening minutes of duel between orchestra and organ are so riveting that the rest of it never quite reaches the same level). L’enfance du Christ is the same problem in reverse: the closing pages are astonishing, but take quite a while to arrive.

    …but did you seriously say you have trouble with Brahms? That deserves a post of its own.

    • telescoper Says:

      I’ve had my head bitten off quite a few times for daring to mention I wasn’t that keen on Brahms, but I do make the effort to try to explore his music and have found pieces I enjoy. I just find he doesn’t speak to me as clearly as, say, Mahler…

      • John Peacock Says:

        Well, maybe it’s age. When I was young, I was probably into Mahler’s music more than anything. But although I still really like it, the spell has receded just a touch (whether because I’ve had the good fortune to play all the symphonies, and so know how the machinery works, who knows?). I’ve found myself more drawn to Brahms in recent years – perhaps his pessimism fits the spirit of the times. Do you know the late piano pieces? Try the A major intermezzo op 118.

  5. catherine bramble Says:

    Dear Telescoper

    I have just started my family tree and came across some references to my family, the Brambles of Newcastle on your blog.

    One, in particular, took my interest, as I believe we are probably quite closely related. It was a comment by ‘Anne’ in 2010 regarding her husband’s family, which is also mine.

    I am writing to you to ask if there is any way I can contact Anne directly, if you still have her details? It may be you could ask her if it’s ok for me to do this. Otherwise, she is welcome to my email address.

    Many thanks

    Catherine Bramble

    ps Although I live ‘down south’ I am coming to stay near Newcastle in November and will take a trip down the streets where my family lived and still do, I imagine. Plenty of research to do before then, though. >

    • telescoper Says:

      If you reply to her comment on the correct post then she will receive a notification by email.

  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    Have you tried Brahms’ 4th symphony, piano concertos or the German Requiem?

    • telescoper Says:

      I’ve never heard the 4th Symphony in concert. I have heard a couple of the Piano Concertos which were OK. I did very much enjoy the German Requiem when I heard it at St David’s.

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