The Sorrows of Young Berlioz

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

L’Orchestre National / Andre Vandernoot

Command Classics CC 33-11009


Hector Berlioz’s diabolical symphony is essentially a psychological self-portrait in sound. And it may not have come about if it weren’t for a particular woman whom he became infatuated with. Berlioz had always been a mercurial boy with some serious teenage angst. Later, his unbridled sensitivity would find a romantic, though unrequited, outlet in the form of Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson. It would turn out to be one of the most self-destructuve, albeit productive crushes in history.

Berlioz was born in 1803. Early on he was disowned by his mother for his theatrical proclivities. From the beginning of his musical career, Beethoven was his idol; he was especially struck by the Beethoven’s symphonies, which came to push at the boundaries of classical music with their wild emotions and Romantic grandeur. Using that Beethovian sublimation of the self in his own music, Berlioz finished his Symphonie Fantastique in the late 1820s, and it premiered in 1830. It was both an attempt to impress Harriet and to dramatize his raging feelings about her and his art all at once, sewing all his emotions on his sleeve. Harriet didn’t show up, putting a ribbon on his torment.

The Symphonie Fantasique is an emotionally tenuous tone poem. Its first movement opens with a lovely violin/flute combo while the orchestra roils miserably beneath it, symbolizing the Artist’s pent-up agitation about his beloved, i.e. Harriet Smithson. Following that is a waltzy Ball, where, ostensibly, she fails to appear. Afterwards, Berlioz channels his pastoral boyhood with a cowherd’s melody. He spies the woman of his dreams walking with someone else, and the orchestra mirrors his rage in a fit of convulsive blasts that completely shatters the tranquility of the setting.

Things turn dark from there. March to the Scaffolds presents the antagonist on his way to the gallows, having murdered his beloved, accompanied by the cheap sounds of a marching band. The theme he gave Harriet plays briefly, before cut short by the sudden swipe of the guillotine. The crowd applauds. A drumbeat is heard. Yet, in horror movie fashion, it turns out all to be a troubled dream.

In the last movement, the dream veers into a witches’ Sabbath, where sorcerers and creatures convene for a demoniac ritual. A church bell summons everyone to a nightmarish dance. It took Berlioz several years to master the fugue, and, tellingly, it’s a fugue that provides his final soundtrack to hell. Then the music goes haywire. His beloved actually does not snub him this time; she shows up to gloat over his circumstances. It’s a frightening extravaganza in imagery and sound, reveling orgiastically in its hero’s undoing and annihilation. Audiences had never heard anything like it.

But it wasn’t until the second premiere, with finally taking up his offer to attend, that some real drama manifested itself outside of the symphony. After the performance, Harriet realized that the work was a thinly veiled portrait of how Berlioz felt about her, and she agreed to meet with him. At the assignation, one of the weirdest wedding proposals ever would occur.

During a subsequent date, Berlioz took from his pocket a huge amount of opium, more than enough to kill the composer, and then he swallowed it without further ado. Right then, he asked her to marry him. Completely frazzled, she said yes. Berlioz calmly took a second vial out of a different pocket, which happened to be an antidote, which he took. They married in 1833, and it’s not shocking, considering Berlioz’s temperament, that the marriage didn’t take, and they separated not long afterwards.

Among the plethora of good and bad performances, this stereo version on the Command Classics 35MM label, is a solid, if obscure, recording, but with the bonus of neat abstract expressionist designs.

Francescatti’s Bruch

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Bruch: Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra

with Beethoven: Two Romances

Zino Francescatti, violin / Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York / Dimitri Mitropoulos / Columbia Symphony Orchestra / Jean Morel

Columbia 4575

In the populous domain of Romantic violin concertos, there’s a lot to pick from. You can choose between Beethoven’s op. 61, Mendelssohn’s op. 64 or the Brahms. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is one of the most played, possibly just ahead of Jean Sibelius’s, and that’s just counting the most well-known. Each has been recorded a plethora of times, with the best violinists. The sound of the violin–majestic, towering, melancholic–makes it more than just a virtuosic vehicle designed for hotshot doyens (although that’s never lacking in the above-mentioned works either).

Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 is like some archetype of the form. It was completed, with considerable hemming and hawing by the composer, in 1866, and was intended for the great  virtuoso Joseph Joachim. From the beginning it was a smash hit, though after a while Bruch couldn’t stand it and refused to listen to it anymore.

Despite his strong feelings, it’s become one of the performed works for violin. As part of the standards, it’s shot through with an empathic Romanticism. The violin soars above the orchestra like it’s rising out of the accompaniment in the Prelude and then softens to lullaby strains in the Adagio middle movement, with triplicated themes voiced equally between soloist and symphony. The energetic Finale is an extravaganza of virtuosity, with melodies strung from national airs and folks songs, and composed with unrelenting lyricism.

Zino Francescatti is the virtuoso in question on this Columbia mono LP, with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the P-SO of NY. The violinist was known for his championing of contemporary works, like those of Milhaud and Szymanowski. He’s most esteemed for his Mendelssohn recordings, however, along with this concerto.

Cosmic Romanticism

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Saint-Saens: Symphony No. 3 “Organ”

Gaston Litaize, organ / Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Daniel Barenboim

Deutsche Grammophon 2530 619

There goes the French Beethoven.

-Charles Gounod, after hearing Saint-Saens’s 3rd Symphony


I’ve always considered Saint-Saens a gateway to more “classical” classical music. His 5 piano concertos are entertaining melody machines, with few pretensions and a very big Romanticism. If you equated classical composers of the period to directors of blockbusters today, Brahms would be Spielberg, Wagner is Michael Bay, Bruckner might be Christopher Nolan, Dvorak is Tarantino (obviously!) and Saint-Saens would have to be Paul Feig, or some other helmsman of crowd-pleasing rom-coms with moments of seriousness and real sentiment. Saint-Saens is universally known for his Carnival of the Animals; probably it’s the first symphonic work marketed exclusively to children and parents. The same year it came out, 1886, marked the appearance of his grandest work.

And grandeur is a good descriptor of the 3rd Symphony. Tom Service, in the Guardian, makes a compelling case that the 3rd is one of the period’s greatest orchestral works, and that it should not deter listeners that the main theme from the finale has been used in the film Babe and as the national anthem for Atlantium, a micronation founded by three teenagers and located in Australia (and which sounds like some Borgesian jest).

For all it’s quotable melodies and larger-than-life symphonism, the 3rd is structurally experimental, employing, along with a huge symphony, a part for piano (it takes four hands to pull of the blazing figurations) and, famously, an organ. It’s also arranged in two parts instead of the obligatory four. Like a Liszt tone-poem, the 3rd is bursting with color and episode, and is arguably the best work Saint-Saens would compose. The monumental finale, even by the standards of late 19th century finales, is truly universe-rattling, with an organ outro that’s so deep and alien in the symphonic domain that it sounds like vibrations from a distant planet interfering with the sound-waves of the recording.

Across the Harmonic Universe

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Bruckner: Symphony No. 4

Karl Bohm / Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Decca 2xLP 6BB 171/2 (2015 pressing)

Maybe this isn’t place, but I’ll confide anyway. I lost my virginity in the backseat of a vintage Mercedes, parked in a dark cornfield, to Anton Bruckner. Or, to specify, whilst listening to a CD of Bruckner’s 4th Symphony, the “Romantic” (I know, right?)

Of all Bruckner’s symphonies, there’s probably not a better soundtrack to a first sexual experience. The fourth is a smorgasbord of styles, from Wagnerian excess to Vivaldi-like concerto grossi to classical chorale. Begun and completed in 1847 (it went through numerous revisions), the symphony starts with a soft E-flat major in the horn section, the intent being that you don’t realize the work has started until you find that it has. It creeps up on you like a sunrise.

Bruckner said that the beginning introduces a “medieval city – dawn” with knights, forest murmurs and bird song commingling. Then C-flat takes over, with the strings in E-flat for coloration, much of which is done in 2 plus 3 rhythms, with the various keys conflating and resolving in shades of black and light.

The 2nd movement is a ponderous Andante quasi Allegro, bringing about a dour march of sorts that leads to a jaunty Scherzo played at walking speed. The final movement, snatching anxiously at beautiful new themes as though plucking them from the ether, goes on brilliantly to reiterate gestures from the first movements, but with a far more grayscale mood and an elusive strangeness that backgrounds the entire symphony.

Michael Steinberg calls the conclusion “one of his greatest codas…grandly confident strides across huge territories of the harmonic universe.” As with all of Bruckner’s symphonies, it’s big, imposing and mysterious, and perhaps no other recordings brings out these qualities quite like Bohm and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

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Dvorak’s Sublime Folksong

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Everybody has heard Antonin Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, most have listened to his bittersweet Cello Concerto, some know of his Violin Concerto and a handful are aware of his bizarrely obscure Piano Concerto (probably by way of Richter and Kleiber on EMI). In all these larger-scale pieces, Dvorak is a melodist’s melodist, layering gorgeous harmony on gorgeous harmony with a contrapuntal precision that can’t be topped.

But in his chamber music, he’s a melody machine. The “American” Quartet, the Dumka Trio,  the piano quartets–each is ravishing in its own way. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Piano Quintet, opus 81, which is a stunning amalgamation of the composer’s synthesis of Romanticism, classical structure and Slavic tunes.

Themes are explored, transformed, revitalized, diminished and intensified, culminating in a fugato that gathers all the motifs up into a bang-up coda. Dvorak was an alchemist of fusing all the disparate themes from a given work for his grand finales, and it’s no different in this Piano Quintet.

For obvious reasons, five varicolored Eastern European eggs adorn the sleeve. The once much-heralded Fine Arts Quartet (“A study in depth” said one critic after a performance of theirs) pairs with pianist Frank Glazer for a spirited recording on the Concert-Disc label.

Dark and Stormy Nights

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Moodiness and the sublime duke it out in these Beethoven sonatas. The Appassionata was begun around 1804, and its roiling turbulence crescendoes into emotional fury. Similarly, the Op. 13 “Pathetique”, with a languorous Andante cantabile (used to great effect in the Cohn Brothers’ under-appreciated noir The Man Who Wasn’t There), conjures big “R” Romantic volatility. A storm-tossed cover gets the point across.

Space Oddity

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One of the more unsettling sleeves I’ve seen in a while, taken from the Mercury label. This premier recording of the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra by John Corigliano (famous for his score for The Red Violin, which must have one of the most awkward sex scenes in cinema history), is paired with Richard Strauss’s Sinfonia Domestica. The disturbing art by Ernst Fuchs shows a half reptile, half intergalactic space woman as noticed in a funhouse mirror, with a touch of David Lynch and Edvard Munch thrown in. Somehow melancholic and scary at once, it’s a bizarrely apt depiction of Corigliano’s flustered atonal romanticism.

Zimerman & Schubert

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Franz Schubert: Piano Sonatas Nos. 20 & 21 / Krystian Zimerman, piano / 180g, Double LP / Deutsche Grammophon

You have to love Deutsche Grammophon for continuing to issue their new releases on 180g vinyl–possibly the last classical music label to do so. Here, they reunite with Krystian Zimerman after a 20-year hiatus from solo recordings (his previous one was Debussy’s Preludes I and II in 1994). Zimerman’s playing, as usual, is as sensitive as wind on a mercurial midnight ocean.

That ocean is Franz Schubert’s last two piano sonatas. One minute sweet and calm, the next a full-on storm threatening to become a monsoon. Completed, along with No. 19, in a ridiculously short time in 1828, the sonatas are possibly the best inkling of the composer’s Sturm und Drang mindset, with passages of barely contained turmoil coiled in the most melodic of melodies.

Schubert’s solo and chamber pieces are marked by lyricism and turmoil. Subtle key changes and dark effects (the growling trill that interrupts the ponderous opening theme of the D960 sonata) were Schubert’s forte. Nowhere is that more pronounced than in the andantino from the D959 Sonata, which starts in a fragmented melancholy and soon breaks loose from all sanity in a spasm of runs, flourishes and trills.

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Zimerman’s is an eloquent, polished recording; he is, after all, a pianist’s pianist. His one-of-a-kind sound (the result of his having built by hand a keyboard for his Steinway) is nothing short of velvety. No one sounds remotely like Zimerman. Because he forgoes all the emotional explosions and abrupt shifts of other pianists, his Schubert is ironically one of the least conventional.

In the molto moderato, with its hints of menace, that opens the D960 Sonata Zimerman’s playing is transcendent (he includes the repeats that some performers choose not to record), handling the abrupt shifts and key changes with exquisite proportionality. And his pellucid, absolutely controlled playing reigns throughout both sonatas. Compared to Alfred Brendel’s somewhat staid rendering on the one hand, and Valery Afanassiev’s slow descent into a hellish maelstrom on the other, Zimerman charts his own fastidious path.

Any inkling to overdramatize is fully contained in an impressionistic approach. It’s probably the most consistent performances of these sonatas to date, ranking up there with Wilhelm Kempff’s intimately raw playing of the cycle for DG (a personal favorite) and Rudolf Serkin’s muscular, extroverted recording on the CBS label. Perhaps a little more fierceness here and there, though, would not have been unwelcome.