Scan of the 1867 Gustave Courbet portrait of Berlioz supplied by some guy too modest to take the credit. Photo of Berlioz' tomb at Montmartre by James C. Morris III, M.D.; to both of these gentlemen, much thanks!
Welcome to Le feuilleton fantastique d'Hector Berlioz! This site is devoted to this misunderstood French composer.
The main attraction here is still that my 1983 Master's Thesis is on the Web! Click here for the Foreword, which will then give you a link to the rest of the thesis. Any and all comments will be appreciated.
For now, however, I'm leading off with an overview of currently-available recordings of the work, heavily sprinkled with my opinions. This text was freely adapted from various posts I've made on the CompuServe MUSICA Forum, but I keep adding to it and revising it from time to time.
My next favorite is a live performance from 13 December 1959 with tenor Richard Lewis (not the comedian) and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. For me, the best Berlioz news so far in 1999 has been the first authorized release of this touchstone performance on the BBC Legends label as BBCL 4011-2, on a single CD with an excellent booklet (though I have to use a magnifying glass to read the tiny print). If you've been making do so far with the previous pirated issues on Hunt or Arcadia, you can simply throw those away (but please observe your local laws with regard to recycling, littering, and/or disposal of martial arts weapons). The sound, from London's Royal Albert Hall, has never sounded better, and has more impact than I had ever heard from this performance. More to the point, the conception of the work is dramatically perfect and its execution is first-rate (apart from a few shaky moments from the tenor).
Several conductors have made first-rate recordings in stereo. Of the two by the Alsatian conductor Charles Munch, I prefer his earlier (April 1959) one with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This was once available as part of RCA 6210-2-RC, a 2-CD set with Munch's earlier BSO recording of the Symphonie fantastique. It was been reissued again as part of an 8-CD set of one each of that conductor's BSO Berlioz recordings. I have not yet heard the newer reissues, one in a 10-CD box including some additional Munch Berlioz, nor the newer SACD edition. Munch's July 1967 remake, with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, was on DGG LPs for many years, but its European CD release (DGG 439 705-2) is also currently unavailable in the United States.
Sir Colin Davis' first recording (yes, I said first), with the London Symphony at Westminster Cathedral in November 1969, followed a series of performances earlier in the year (the centenary of Berlioz' death) at St. Paul's Cathedral. Tenor Ronald Dowd is a bit bleaty, but the English choirs (including a boy's choir) sing magnificently and in tune, and Davis' reputation as a Berliozian is nowhere more in evidence than in this reading. It's still available, coupled with the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale, as Philips 416 283-2. (Davis' 1989 version with Bavarian forces at Regenburg Cathedral is also effective, and is available on DVD as Image ID9329RADVD. There doesn't seem to be a commercial release in store for his performance from the Royal Albert Hall in 2000.)
Leonard Bernstein's recording with the combined Orchestre National de France and Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, along with Choeurs de Radio France and tenor Stuart Burrows, was made at the site of the work's premiere, Les Invalides in Paris. Well, sort of, because l'Église de Saint-Louis and l'Église du Dome shared an altar in those days. The altars are now partitioned with lead-glass, and l'Église du Dome was hollowed out for the tomb of Napoleon, so the acoustics are obviously not what they were in 1837. Bernstein's recording has been superbly remastered, with other Bernstein Berlioz recordings, as part of Sony's Royal Edition as Sony SM2K 47528.
Bernstein's live performance, with the same forces and undoubtedly preceding the recording sessions, was originally issued in the US on a VHS NTSC tape. As such, while I did own this tape, it did not meet certain of my criteria for inclusion in this list, in that it was not in a medium that is round and flat. For years a Japanese LaserDisc eluded me, but in 2005 this fine performance (in the presence of an audience, including the French president, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing) is included in a boxed set of nine DVDs from Kultur, entitled "The Leonard Bernstein Concert Boxed Set."
Another recording, by Hermann Scherchen, had been made at Les Invalides in April 1958, and while a number of people seem to like a whole lot, I'm not very fond of it, because it is as slow as molasses in January. Berlioz is not Bruckner! Note that the stereo version of this recording was not issued for many years, until the Tahra label, owned by the conductor's daughter Miryam, released it -- by a staggering coincidence, also in 2005.
Listeners on a budget may wish to consider Eugene Ormandy's 1964 recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra. This may not be the last word in Berlioz interpretation but it does boast the unique sound of that great band. It is available in the Essential Classics series from Sony "Classical," and is on a single mid-priced CD. This was also the first recording of the work that I ever heard.
For modern digital recordings, I also like André Previn with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus (Walthamstow Town Hall, London), a fine performance in excellent sound; this is available in EMI's "Double fforte" series, which comprises two CDs for the price of one in a slimline jewel box. The coupling is Previn's recording of the Symphonie fantastique. Many people who shop more casually than I have been known to take the easy way out and grab the Robert Shaw/Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus on Telarc CD-80109-2, but while I agree the singing is first-rate, the interpretation is bland as stone soup. The orchestra's remake under conductor Robert Spano for the same label strikes me as just not ready for prime time.
Recent recordings? There's a good one on the super-budget label Naxos, from performers hitherto largely unknown to me: Noel Edison and the "Elora Festival Orchestra" (whatever that is) in beautiful Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The chorus is excellent although sometimes hidden by the orchestra. Tempi go a shade to the slow side, but the conductor builds it well. The Sanctus is beautifully sung by Swiss-Canadian tenor Michael Schade, whom I had the pleasure of hearing as Don Ottavio at the Los Angeles Opera.
Charles Dutoit, as part of his now-cancelled (grumble!) Berlioz cycle for London/Decca, recorded the work with his Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal in May 1997. My spies originally informed me that this was supposed to have been issued in the United States around May 1999, but due to the near-total disarray of the former Polygram companies following their subsumption into the Universal Music megaconglomerate, this got delayed to early 2000, giving Naxos the first release of a Canadian performance of the work. Dutoit is earnest but curiously uninvolving, even while his performers play and sing their hearts out. John-Mark Ainsley, the soloist in the Sanctus, has a strident tone and ungainly wobble, hardly the "voice from on high" one prefers in this music. Give it a pass.
Other issues of recent years: James Levine/Berlin Philharmonic on DGG 429 724-2 is not bad, and has Pavarotti as soloist in the Sanctus if you really insist on big names. There are also entries from Alain Lombard as well as the Danish conductor Michael Schoenwandt, but I don't consider either of these "world class." John Hopkins' farewell concert with his Sydney Conservatorium is available as Walsingham WAL 8000-2. It's pretty good, but not really competitive with the best.
Seiji Ozawa, who had performed the work with his Boston Symphony both in Boston and at Tanglewood many times since 1970, finally recorded it in October 1993, but the BMG engineers messed up and placed the microphones too far from the performers. (It sounds like a wonderful performance took place at Symphony Hall, but the mikes were in West Newton!) There is a contemporary review of the performances upon which the recording was based.
Most frustratingly, other recent reissues from major labels have been two decidedly second-rate recordings: Lorin Maazel/Cleveland Orchestra (1978) on Decca 425 056-2 and Daniel Barenboim/Orchestre de Paris (1979) on DGG 437 638-2. (Only the Barenboim is available in the U.S., possibly because his soloist is Plácido Domingo, but DGG still hasn't issued the Munch/Bavarian recording here!)
One of the up-and-coming younger Berlioz conductors of our day is Bertrand de Billy. His 2003 recording on the Oehms label impresses at first hearing, though I think I shall have to live with it for a while before I can properly rank it. For the moment, though, I'll give it a decided thumbs-up. Now if only we could have a recording from John Nelson, whom I heard perform it in San Francisco c. 1975 (with tenor John Aler giving his first performance of the Sanctus), and who has produced fine recordings of the Te Deum and now Benvenuto Cellini....
Going back in time again: A version on EMI which some people may enjoy more than I is Frémaux' April 1975 recording with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra [Great Hall, Birmingham University]; it is available in the United States as a special import, coupled with the Fauré Requiem, which may tilt the balance for some people (I far prefer the plainchant-inspired Requiem by Fauré's student, Maurice Duruflé). This was one of two recordings issued in Quadraphonic sound. The other, Maurice Abravanel's reading with the Utah Symphony, returned to circulation on Vanguard Classics in September 1998. Its chief virtue is that it was recorded in the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, as some people enjoy the acoustics there. I really must set up my rear speakers and hear the SACD editions of this, Munch/Boston and (sigh) Spano.
Thanks to the good graces of a friend, Anne Morrel, who visited Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus in London on my behalf, I now have the Munch/Bavarian and Maazel/Cleveland recordings in their CD guises. And I am embarrassed to relate that the Maazel recording contains the "Culpa rubet" passage which Berlioz cut from the "Quaerens me" movement before the publication of the definitive edition of the GMdm. I suppose I didn't really notice this when I was working on my thesis because the performance bored me and I wasn't paying attention. Mea culpa!
Dimitri Mitropoulos' 1956 Vienna Philharmonic performance at the Salzburg Festival, intended as a memorial to Wilhelm Furtwängler (who had died in 1954!), has now been issued on a single CD by Orfeo. It is highly dramatic with a great sense of occasion, though the sound is muted and the brass are mis-timed in the Tuba Mirum. Still, it has one of the loveliest readings of the Sanctus tenor solo by the splendid Léopold Simoneau.
I am also indebted to a correspondent, Henning Reinholz from Ulm, Germany, who found and sent me a scarce limited-edition LP set of a 1979 broadcast from Stuttgart, conducted by Michael Gielen. I know that some people regard Gielen as one of the greatest conductors of our time. (I am not one of them.)
Another kind reader, Hugo Röling of Amsterdam, Nederland, has sent me two items I never would have guessed existed. The first is a 2-LP set from a live performance on 4 April 1980, by the Hannoversche Chorgemeinschaft and Rundfunkorchester Hannover of the NDR, under its conductor Wilfried Garbers, with tenor Richard Greager. It's an okay provincial performance, nothing to write home about. The other is with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Dimitri Kitaenko at the Chaise-Dieu festival (an event founded by György Cziffra, given every summer at a cathedral in the Auvergne) in 1994. More of that one once I've heard it.
And finally, a special word of thanks to my old and dear friend Dave Nee, who found for me the issued CDs of a 1998 performance conducted by UC Davis' Berlioz maven, Prof. D. Kern Holoman.
I could ramble on at length and catalogue the considerably lesser virtues of many other recordings, chiefly by conductors not generally known (well, some may have heard of a Belgian named Leon Barzin), and I could warn readers away from one by Gary Bertini that is actually pretty good except for one major goof in the Lacrimosa (one poor soul in the CompuServe MUSICA Forum was obsessed with finding a copy of this item) ... but I think you get the idea.
Speaking of goofs.... There is a recording on the obscure Boheme Russian Classical Collection label, with Yuri Kochnev conducting the Saratov Academic Theatre Orchestra and Chorus and tenor Alexander Samoilov. But don't, by any means, buy it! The chorus punches out practically every note they sing (except for some of them in the Quaerens me). The orchestra is sloppy and unkempt; exposed wind chords are never together. The strings, when their parts are to the fore, display a ghastly pinched tone. SOME of the brass ensembles appear to be playing fairly decently, but one of them -- the one closest to the ill-placed microphones, as it happens -- has trumpets which resemble the worst from those bad old Soviet recordings. The light cymbal clashes in the Sanctus are hardly audible, and the big one in the Lacrimosa is missing entirely! And speaking of the Sanctus, the tenor sings with a forced sound and a wide wobble, and he dodged his high notes on "Sabaoth" by taking Berlioz' printed alternative, something I've never heard before. The conductor whips through the score as though he had a chess tournament immediately afterwards. (It's possible to perform this work quickly while retaining all the power and subtlety of it; Beecham and Ormandy are the best examples.) You Have Been Warned!
Since I can't claim (much as I would like) to know everything about every recording of every Berlioz work, there is now a guest review by David Gable of recordings of Berlioz' great Oratorio/"Legend", La damnation de Faust. David has also promised to contribute (eventually) an essay on the recordings of Berlioz' operas.
I'm not kidding when I put a copyright notice at the bottom of every one of my Web pages. Some Music Education major at a college back East decided to plagiarize much of the above text, and when I found out about it, I had to turn him in to his department head to protect my ownership of my writings. Twice. 'Nuff said!
Here's some useless trivia: Of the 46 conductors whose interpretation of the Berlioz Requiem have been issued on record (there have been five "repeaters"), three were born in China, two in Greece, and one in Turkey -- not exactly where one generally expects world-class conductors to come from!
Another "institutional" site worth visiting is Berlioz 2003, dedicated to the just-passed bicentenary of the composer's birth. There is a brief but descriptive page at the Naxos Records site.
Many individuals have had excellent Berlioz pages as well, although some of them have disappeared over the years. Bernd Harmsen has a couple of worthwhile pages devoted to Berlioz, such as this one, a most interesting essay on Berlioz' use of the Requiem text, and this one, an excellent monograph on La damnation de Faust. And a Caltech student, Jason C. Lee, has produced a Berlioz site as his Mu 123 Class Project.
FaustTiger's World of Hector Berlioz is most notable for the inclusion of links to MIDI files for portions of the Symphonie fantastique. The author (whose name I could not discover, but whose main interests appear to be Romanticism and tigers) says that he/she plans to write a screenplay about Berlioz. Well, along with Arthur who works at Tower Records in Sherman Oaks, that makes three of us.
But wait, there's more! Takashi M. Kikuchi has been kind enough to supply an abstract of another Berlioz page in Japanese. This abstract follows, slightly edited for space:
This is a description of the Grande Messe des morts, from Chapter 3 of "New Introductory text on Berlioz" written by Mr. Wataru Kurata.Takashi-san, thank you very much for your scholarship!
It starts with a brief history of the composition. The description of all ten movements follows. The author seems to favor the second and sixth ones since he writes much more about them than about the others. The second movement is explained in a fashion that shows the author's astonishment at the power of the music. The explanation of the sixth movement comes with a brief example of a part of the work with the scale and its modifications, and the degree of accent on each rhythm. Analysis of the architecture of the music in terms of the volume along with orchestration then follows. After brief data (year of composition, first performance, orchestration, construction, and duration) of this piece, the author's recommendations are given (Colin Davis/LSO on Philips and Bernstein/Orchestre National de France on Sony, followed by Inbal on Denon, Shaw on Telarc, and Levine on DGG). In general, he seems to believe that Berlioz' use of sheer, unprecendented range of volume has made this work a masterpiece. Since this page could be translated into 8-10 pages of English text, I'd say it is quite interesting and adequately thorough to lead readers to try out this piece.
Classic Records' HomePage has a couple of bites, in "Jack Pfeiffer's Corner," from the classic Charles Munch/Boston Symphony Orchestra recordings of both the Symphonie fantastique and La Damnation de Faust. These are in multiple sound formats, so go to town.Copyright © 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 by Matthew B. Tepper
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