There was no one man in the French Romantic Movement more hot-blooded than composer Hector Berlioz (1803-1869). Proficient in no particular instrument, Berlioz's talent lay in composition, arrangement, and conducting. The entire orchestra was his instrument. Learned, erudite, and all around sanguine wild man, Berlioz existed in the rarefied company of other great Romanticists including Liszt, Wagner, Paganini, Chopin and Schumann.
Berlioz's most noted composition was his five-movement symphony Symphonie Fantastique
, composed and premiered in 1830. The symphony had a "program" or storyline telling of a "an artist gifted with a lively imagination," who has "poisoned himself with opium" in the "depths of despair," because of "hopeless love." Berlioz provided the following instructions for the proper performance of the piece:
"The composer's intention has been to develop various episodes in the life of an artist, in so far as they lend themselves to musical treatment. As the work cannot rely on the assistance of speech, the plan of the instrumental drama needs to be set out in advance. The following programme must therefore be considered as the spoken text of an opera, which serves to introduce musical movements and to motivate their character and expression."
This re-release of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's performance, beneath the baton of Daniel Barenboim and recorded for Teldec in 1996, is heartily welcomed back in circulation, serving as one of the better performances of the piece available on record. The performance is conducted with a suitable measure of abandon, one fitting the composer's tumultuous character. All of Barenboim's tempi are deliberate and appropriate. The first movement is performed with the necessary drama and emphasis on Berlioz's idée fixe
. Determined is the coda to the first movement, a foreshadowing of the millions of Romantic pieces to come.
The second movement ("Waltz") is one that begs, year-after-year, to be performed at the New Year's Concert of the Vienna Philharmonic. Barenboim and the orchestra produce a sumptuous dance piece that is both beautiful and foreboding. Barenboim captures the drama of the remaining movement, evoking the certain terror of the "Marche au supplice" and the chaotic finale of "Songe d'une nuit de sabbat."
But it is the over-the-top arrangement of Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle's La Marsellaise
, the French National Anthem that is the real show stopper. With the tenor solo sung by Barenboim's longtime friend Placido Domingo, with support from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus, Barenboim shows perfectly the passion and grit of Berlioz in this most nationalistic of settings. The French Revolution was still a powerful memory when Berlioz set to work and, in that, he created a lasting anthem with no peer. Perfect performances in every way.