Hector Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

C. Michael Bailey By

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Symphonic Transcriptions for Piano, Part I

In music, Franz Liszt was the quintessential Byronic Hero. Like his modifying Romantic namesake, George Gordon (Lord Byron), Liszt was a beautiful, talented, and fundamentally flawed artist. Where Byron could toss off rhyme and piss drunk better than any of his contemporaries, Liszt could perform his most difficult compositions while planning his next rendezvous with an aristocratic wife. Liszt represents the essence of Romanticism. The father of several illegitimate children, Liszt saw his daughter Cosima went on to marry famed pianist and conductor Hans von Bulow while at the same time having the children of über composer Richard Wagner. That is an impressive musical pedigree.

When the careers of Franz Liszt and Hector Berlioz intersected in 1830, all of the planets of the Romantic Movement fell in line. The two composers met the day before the premier of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique (literally, "Fantastic Symphony"). It was the beginning of a long friendship between the Frenchman and the Hungarian. Liszt completed his piano transcription of the Symphonie Fantastique in 1833. He had long been known to take performance liberties with his transcriptions, a fact that concerned Berlioz. But Liszt was careful in his reductions, saying in a letter, "...I have worked on this conscientiously as if I were transcribing Holy Scriptures, attempting to transfer to the piano not only the general structure of the music but all of its separate parts..."

Liszt used the Symphonie Fantastique as a vehicle for his keen virtuosity. The transcription was a staple of his performances to the end of his life. He would perform the entire piece and then return and reprise the "Marche Au Supplice" as an encore. Liszt's virtuoso temperment derives from his early relationship with Italian violinist Nicolo Paganini, perhaps the greatest soloist in history. Paganini went light years toward declaring the artist as hero, elevating the performer above the works performed. Liszt transcribed Berlioz's "Harold in Italy" (based on Byron's A Childe Harold's Pilgrimage ) for piano and viola, with Paganini in mind for the viola part. It is with this backdrop that Franz Liszt looms so large within our collective Romantic unconscious.

The Liszt transcription of the Symphonie Fantastique is highly technical and orchestral. Liszt employed many romantic techniques in his score, many of which expound on the intention of Berlioz. The performance here in by Naxos staple Idil Biret is, in my estimation, the leading interpretation of this romantic piece. Ms. Biret plays with more fire than Leslie Howard on his like release for the complete Liszt piano music series for the Hyperion Label. Her orchestral sentiment is amply stated in the opening movement and carries on throughout the five-movement work. Naxos Classical has undertaken a similar series to Hyperion's, with the exception that multiple pianist will take part in the Naxos Series where the Hyperion series employed a single artist.

Idil Biret's Symphonie Fantastique was issued prior to the advent of the Naxos Liszt Piano Series. If I were Klaus Heymann, I would reissue Biret's interpretation and allow her to record Harold in Italy. To offer a second release of the Liszt/Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, I would have Konstintin Sherbakov record the Belioz pieces after he has completed the Liszt/ Beethoven transcriptions. Regardless, the market would appreciate this bit of consistency. As for Idil Biret, we should be thankful to her for her depth and breadth in interpreting the classical piano repertoire. But, above all, my money is on Ms. Biret. She has the goods to deliver. I am looking forward to Harold in Italy.

Track Listing: Reveries-Passions; Un Bal; Scene Aux Champs; Marche Au Supplice; Song D'une Nuit Sabbat.

Personnel: Idil Biret-Piano.

Title: Symphonie Fantastique | Year Released: 2003


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