Archive for Symphonie Fantastique

Symphonie Fantastique

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2017 by telescoper

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!