Berlioz’s ‘dramatic symphony’ of 1839 (at least seven years in the making) is a further refinement, nine years after the prodigious Symphonie fantastique, of his love, bordering on obsession, for the plays of Shakespeare and the symphonies of Beethoven; both of whom he did much to promote as a reluctant but hard-working critic against the prevailing wind of a sceptical Parisian culture that was enamoured of the products of its own nation.
Somehow it’s inevitable, then, that the most startling, original and moving passages in the symphony are the central triptych of instrumental movements, ‘Roméo seul’, the Love Scene and the Queen Mab Scherzo, where Berlioz moves beyond words to evoke the pain of his tragic protagonists and the evanescent dream-fairy of the Scherzo. Here Berlioz demands the most acutely sensitive response from his performers – it’s appropriate that the whole score is dedicated to Nicolò Paganini – and here too, therefore, this recording gains particular lustre through the incomparably rich playing of the Vienna Philharmonic. Sir Colin Davis is known worldwide as the conductor who has done more than any other (and probably more than any musician in history) not only to bring Berlioz to public consciousness but to inspire respect and then love for a composer whom fellow musicians long derided. His later performances and recordings have revelled in ever more minutely nuanced detail than his pioneering efforts, and of course benefitted from the advances in recording technology that have enabled Berlioz’s remarkable orchestration to glint and startle as never before on record.
“Davis uses the warmth and softness of the Vienna Philharmonic to make the most of this aspect of the music, where the acuter definitions of a French or an English orchestra might suggest a different approach. It is
extremely intelligent conducting. As before, Davis has the instinct for Berlioz’s long, irregular melodic lines, for the unpredictable harmonic tinge that confers poignancy or tension, for the rhythmic swerves, for the
abrupt dramatic contrasts that can move the music in a startling direction.”
“Wit, sparkle, tenderness, majesty, excitement: it's all here, and the difficult final scene is done with ease. A classic.”
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