'Sir Colin Davis, one of the best Berlioz specialists of today, proves himself worthy of this title by giving us firm, first-class and solid versions of the composer's output. This record of the Symphonie Fantastique is a prime example, in which Davis presents a performance that deserves to be praised enthusiastically and not reproached harshly. Through the whole performance, Davis injects the right amount of adrenaline, and the Concertgebouw orchestra responds well to his touch, even though he is a British conductor, and the Philips (now Decca) recording is first-class, with the right balance and atmosphere. From the opening Reveries of the work, one is totally spellbound by the music-making, and one can't help but be suspended on the edge of their seats.
The entire first movement is given blood and thrust, and the hysteria that the imaginary artist experiences is well-brought out here, as well as the innocence of the idee fixe. The Ball sequence that follows is well-presented in the manner of true blue Viennese waltzes, and the music really sways like never before. However, the tense excitement comes to an abrupt halt as the Scene in the Country sets in, with a true dream-like quality brought about by the shimmering sounds of the orchestra. But in the last two sections, the March to the Scaffold and the Dream of a Sabbath Night, the blood races faster than ever before because of the sharp, menacing sounds, with a fiery and menacing March and a macabre Dream, replete with Dies irae.
Overall, I can safely say that Davis really gives one of the world's best Fantastique records, and that this is the one to buy if you are looking for a first-class modern stereo performance.' Penguin Music Classics
"The effect of her marvellous talent, or rather of her dramatic genius, on my fantasy and my heart can only be compared with the effect the poet himself had upon me." This confession by Berlioz contains the three concepts essential to the understanding of his Symphonie fantastique, concentrated in a wonderful manner: effect, drama, fantasy. However, let us take them each in turn.
In 1827, Berlioz had seen Shakespeare's Hamlet for the first time, featuring the Irish actress Harriet Smithson as Ophelia. The young, as yet unknown composer worked himself into a complete frenzy of passion for the widely celebrated artist (who was later to become his wife, to the misfortune of both). He decided to win her favour by means of a "monumental instrumental composition". In just two months, between February and April 1830, Berlioz completed his strongly autobiographical Symphonie fantastique, which he at first entitled Episode de la vie d'un artiste. A "Künstlerdrama", therefore, which Berlioz described as a "drame musical", in imitation of Victor Hugo and which, as in Classical drama, consisted of five movements.
One could say that the Symphonie fantastique is the prototype of the "programme music" genre; to be sure, one which surpasses by far the simple, musical imitation of a literary model, and instead makes its own literary and dramatically descriptive claim. Berlioz drew up a written programme for the première of the work, which caused certain misunderstandings from the first. What had been intended as an advance explanation for the audience, as a suggestive idea for the musical drama, was taken literally as a model text, for which one was expected to search, bar by bar, in the music. (In a later version of the programme, the entire symphony was described as a hallucination in the midst of an opium haze.)
In the Symphonie fantastique, the borders between dream and reality, between art and life itself, become blurred. Berlioz viewed his life through a romantically magnified and "fantastic" lens. He was the first composer to bridge the chasm between art and life, to translate life into art, and thus also to introduce the category of the "characteristic" into the genre of the symphony. Victor Hugo had so vehemently demanded that prominence be given to the "characteristic" above the merely "beautiful" in art. A suitable category for the Symphonie fantastique: after all, it represents all the highs and the lows of love, not excluding the vulgar and the trivial. In its entire programmatic and musical design, the work is oriented entirely to the effect it has on the listener.
In its outward design, the first movement "Rêveries-Passions" still follows entirely the sonata movement scheme popular at the time; however, it breaks away in its inner formula. After a lengthy introduction, the first part essentially presents the motto theme of the entire work, the "idée fixe", which constantly returns in a varied form. This stands for passion in all its varying apparitions: from frenzy to jealousy, tenderness, tears and consolation. During the course of the work, this theme constantly reasserts itself "like a passionate, passing thought, in the midst of the scenes, which are foreign to it, and from which it distracts us" (Berlioz). The "idée fixe" fulfils a paradoxical double role: on the one hand, it remains outside of the musical development as the "fixed idea"; on the other, it holds the symphony together in its most vital part, as a literary idea.
In the second movement, "Un bal" (= a ball), the "idée fixe" is embedded in the waltz rhythm, in the tumult and the whirl of a festive celebration. In the seven-part third movement "Scène aux champs" (= scene in the country), the artist apparently encounters the peace for which he has longed in nature, until the anguish caused by his passion flames up once again following the appearance of his beloved. It is a fragile peace, as the "idée fixe" does not adapt to the quiet 3/4 beat. The rolls of thunder in the kettle drums provide advance warning of the fateful events to take place during the fourth movement "Marche au supplice" (= the march to the gallows). The artist dreams that "he has killed his beloved, that he has been sentenced to death and is being led to his execution". And in fact, the rhythm which drives everything forward towards the end completely determines the events, until at the end the "idée fixe" is violently cut off, left hanging in the air. In the fifth movement, "Songe d'une nuit du sabbat" (= dream of a witches' Sabbath), the dashing 6/8 beat draws everything within its spell. In a crude mixture of Bosch and Brueghel, the artist believes he is "attending a witches' dance". In the hellish orgy held in blasphemous celebration of his own death, which indeed includes a quote from the "Dies irae" from the Requiem, his beloved appears, however, this time transformed into a screeching witch - the "idée fixe" distorted into a grimace by the clarinet. The fantastic dream of the beloved has turned into a true nightmare.