Spring Symphonies: 14/60 Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique
In this brief introduction I don’t want to sell the piece itself but more the approach which makes the piece in my view. This symphony has been a concert favourite for many years and yet its only relatively recently that I’ve noticed something quite odd about the recordings that are available.
This has been a mainstay on record and in the concert hall for years and its worth repeating a bit of it’s history to show entrenched it has become - a fixture if you will. It was premiered in Paris in 1830 (three years after Beethoven died) and it was rapidly taken up. The five movement story of an artist’s dream which starts with Rêveries and Passions and ends with a March to the Scaffold and a Nightmare of a Witches Sabbath is too good to be told quickly here. Add to the two more movements one a waltz at a Ball and the other a Pastoral scene - you’ll see there’s something new and tremendously exciting here compared even to Mozart, Haydn or Schubert even compared to Schumann’s Rhine Journey or Beethoven’s Pastoral or Choral Symphonies. Berlioz’s orchestration and indeed his writing were pretty mind blowing too. The orchestra required is vast and includes instruments we don’t see in the orchestra now. You can imagine that in concert, this story, this composer’s madcap ideas and this kind of grand orchestral spectacle is a show stopper. As if to illustrate this it’s been played at the Proms 63 times since it’s premiere there in 1901, including 23 times in the last thirty years.
It also has a long and rich recorded history with stacks of versions coming out in the early years of stereo showing off the higher dynamic range and the pleasures of stereophonic sounds across a wide sound stage. The great conductors all had a go at it. And many still do - even relatively recently Michael Tilson Thomas came to London to conduct the London Symphony orchestra and again he conducted this work. It provides conductors with a thousand challenges and orchestral players too from the leader of a host of violins (Berlioz specifies at least 15 1st violins) to the guy who gets to make no mistakes with the bells. Its great for audiences, and I suspect generally gets a full house.
And for years I thought it dull as could be. Forensic readings which planted their feet carefully and in moments of high excitement were smothered by a raft of controls by the conductor to ensure every player could be heard or at least had a chance. Nothing but nothing warmed my cockles, not even my favourites Karajan, Markevitch, MTT or Colin Davies.
Then one day in 2003 I guess - and I forget the circumstances how I came to have it - I listened to a new disc, recorded live, by Marc Minkowski and both Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Les Musiciens du Louvre. Minkowski had caught my ear as a specialist in earlier music but never anything quite this late aside from Offenbach.
I was blown away by the sheer extravagance of his reading. He played it straight in the first two movements, delicate and flowing. The Pastoral slow movement was almost trippy: so spare and spacious it became disorientating. The March was grand and bombastic and not one note was spared 100% of its value. The effect was so very dramatic that I was one the edge of my seat for the finale. Even today that is just about the most exhilarating thing you’ll hear on CD despite the fact that the recording engineers could quite capture the enormity of the orchestral effort. Suddenly the work was changed from a delicately managed sound garden to a vast and savage forest of music. And you can’t hear very instrument in Minkowski’s version but it doesn’t matter because this is overwhelmingly a visceral experience of fast moving, blood curdling terror. There aren’t any words really. Just hear it if you can.
Most important all the other readings that had bored me over the years became even more boring - Abbado, Boulez, Karajan again fell by the wayside. One remained of interest - that was by Charles Munch - the Frenchman who could it’s often said take a risk in live performance to dramatic effect. Boulez once described listening to a live performance of the Rite of Spring under Munch as like “driving on ice”. Munch’s reading has the same bravado, exuberance and speed but not the same sound quality or menace.
I don’t have a clue if Minkowski was a fan of Munch in a sense it doesn’t matter. Any linage would be speculative unless one knew of the precise connection. But it turned the work round for me. And so it sometimes is. More fascinating still is that since that 2003 performance I have encountered two more which made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up nearly as much as Minkowski. At the Proms in August 2008 the Gustavo Dudamel and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra ran hell for leather through the score. Subsequently a disc by Les Siecles under Francois Xavier Roth tickled me pink as they presented the score as a reckless ride to nowhere in higher fidelity than Minkowski.
So these things matter in two ways - first despite the clinical approach to recording music, the best also need to have life and spirit and second, I wrote this work off too easily, but it took a different, unconventional view to unlock it for me.
I can’t offer you Minkowski - but that’s on CD. So here’s Dudamel with a French Orchestra, nearly as ferocious as he was at the Albert Hall, fabulous!