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Berlioz’ ‘Symphonie fantastique’ – No. 31 in our collection

Hector Berlioz (11.12.1803 – 08.03.1869) was a French Romantic composer whose original and inventive works shocked audiences of the time. His best known works include the Grande messe des morts (Requiem), the massive opera Les Troyens, and La damnation de Faust. However the culmination of his art must surely be the dramatic Symphonie fantastique. Berlioz was also a fine conductor, who loved to use large forces, and he wrote an influential treatise on orchestration.

Hector Berlioz

Berlioz saw the Symphonie fantastique in autobiographical terms writing that it stood for ‘all I have suffered, all I have attempted … the loves, the labours, the bereavements of my youth’. The work is written in five dream-like movements:

  1. Rêveries – Passions
  2. A Ball
  3. Scene in the Country
  4. March to the Scaffold – where the dreams intensify into a nightmare
  5. Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath – ending in a tour de force of rhythmical and orchestral virtuosity

Colin Davis is arguably the greatest of all conductors of the works of Hector Berlioz and his live recording of this symphony with the splendid London Symphony Orchestra eclipses all other performances. This is Davis’ fourth recording of the symphony is full of excitement and the extra tension of a live performance backed by many years experience of the work. This would have to be one of my desert island discs.

Stream on Spotify or purchase from Presto Classical.

View the other works in our collection.

A musical Shostakovich 7 from Masur

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 60 ‘Leningrad’

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Kurt Masur

The 35-year-old Shostakovich began writing his seventh symphony in July 1941 shortly after the Nazi invasion of Russia. By the time that he started work on the second movement Hitler’s soldiers had arrived at the gates of Leningrad where they laid siege. Once the symphony was completed a most remarkable performance took place took place in Leningrad whilst the city was still under siege and only fourteen members of the Radio Orchestra were still alive. To mount a performance of this monumental work they had to enlist the help of any soldier who could play an instrument! The concert was broadcast live on the radio and served to inspire the populace to continue their defiance of the Nazis.

The monumental first movement immediately sets up the conflict that will remain throughout this symphony. The strength, freedom and individuality of the strings, representing the Soviet people, pitted against the brutal, machine-like rhythms of the trumpets and timpani – their enemies. A flute solo briefly invites us into a dreamlike atmosphere of peace and calm giving a sense of how things were before the menacing invasion. The march and battle that ensue are unrelenting. This movement contains perhaps the most extraordinary fifteen minutes of symphonic music ever written, agony is relentlessly piled upon agony. Just when you think it has to end, Shostakovich introduces another onslaught. But this music is meant to be repetitive and painful.

This is not the place for a full analysis of the symphony but the above should serve to put the work and review into context for those readers who are not familiar with this work.

This recording comes from a performance given by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the late Kurt Masur, in December 2003 at the Southbank Centre, Royal Festival Hall, when he was the orchestra’s Principle Conductor.

There can be no doubting how successful Shostakovich was in depicting the sheer awfulness of the situation in Leningrad and the need to maintain an optimistic outlook but the inherent banality and bombast within this this symphony, in the wrong hands, can make it seem insufferable. To my mind, Masur’s approach is altogether too musical. The large, menacing first movement is delivered in under twenty-five minutes compared to Bernstein, in my recording of choice, who takes over half an hour and portrays the sheer awfulness of the situation in a performance of overwhelming emotional power.

Some readers will enjoy this performance far more than me as it is a very careful and precise performance from the LPO with Masur in which great attention is paid to detail. The LPO perform well and the symphony has been captured in good quality sound¹. It appears that Masur had split the large brass section in two, unless my ears deceive, and I found that to be an interesting and effective choice. So, in essence, a very musical and pleasing performance but not one that hit me in the way I feel that this work should.

Much as I appreciate this symphony, it has inherent weaknesses (by Shostakovich’s high standards) but these somehow disappear in the best of performances. Unfortunately for me they were all too apparent in this recording and I found it rather underwhelming (in emotional impact not volume). Thus, I invite you, the reader, to sample alternatives for yourself. Compare this performance with those from Leonard Bernstein with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Mariss Jansons with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra or Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (at bargain price).

There is much to admire in this performance but in the final analysis it doesn’t quite hit the mark in a crowded market place.

iClassical rating: 

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Compare with the BernsteinJansons or Petrenko by listening on Spotify.

¹ This is no mean feat for a work requiring such a large orchestra that includes eight horns, six trombones, two harps, a piano, three side drums and a full complement of other percussion instruments!

Celebrating International Women’s Day

How many works by female composers have you got in your music collection?

On International Women’s Day we have decided to share some of our favourite CDs featuring works by female composers through the ages. If you are not familiar with this repertoire we have, where possible, attached links to the album covers so that you can explore this wonderful, but in many cases neglected, music.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)

 A feather on the breath of God – Emma Kirkby, Gothic Voices, Christopher Page
Listen to extracts

Francesca Caccini (1587-c1641)

La liberazione di Ruggerio dall’isola di Alcina
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Byrd’s Latin Masses for 3, 4 & 5 voices – No. 30 in our collection

Willia(1543 – 1623) was the leading English composer of his time, and together with  Giovanni Palestrina (c.1525-1594) and Orlando de Lassus (1532-1594), one of the acknowledged great masters of the late Renaissance. Many would suggest that Byrd was one of the very finest English composers ever to have lived. Information regarding William Byrd’s early life is scarce but it is thought that he was a chorister in the choir of the Chapel Royal, London where he may have studied under Thomas Tallis and sung alongside John Sheppard.

Fortunately almost six hundred of his works have survived: church music with Latin texts, church music with English texts, part-songs and madrigals, consort songs, instrumental ensemble music and keyboard music. Byrd’s versatility, and indeed genius, lead the present writer to conclude that he was a more important composer than either Palestrina or de Lassus . English music of the period was amazingly rich, dominating the music of the Europe in both depth and variety, in a manner unparalleled before or since.

Byrd composed three Latin Masses (for three, four, and five voices) during the period 1593-1595. These masses are unusual because they include settings of the “Kyrie” – something not previously seen in any English masses and because they would have needed to be played in private. These masses show Byrd in a reflective mode and they have been composed so as to be easily performable. The masses simple expression and contrapuntal concision make them unique in Renaissance music and show signs of the classical spirit which was later to dominate Europe. They are the three pieces for which William Byrd is most famous.

We have chosen a version of these three Latin Masses performed by Andrew Carwood and the Cardinall’s Musick which feature on Volume 5 of their splendid ‘Byrd Edition’. These three outstanding works are punctuated by some of the great master’s keyboard works exquisitely performed by organist, Patrick Russill.

The Mass for Three Voices is performed at a higher pitch than usual, giving it a light and airy scoring for soprano, alto and tenor which allows the wit and invention to shine through. Whereas the Mass for Four Voices is sung with men’s voices, underlining its sombre character and sense of mysticism. The CD ends with the outstanding Mass for Five Voices which contains one of the greatest pieces of polyphony ever composed in the setting of the words of the Credo. Here it is delivered with just the right power and passion bringing to an end one of the most outstanding Renaissance discs in my collection.

Stream on Spotify or purchase from Presto Classical.

View the other works in our collection.