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Sunday, 6 March 2011





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Rediscovering Berlioz the great romantic

In the sound world of music texture, our imagination conjures and recalls all those great composers that we hold in adoration. We all have our favourites and it is not easy a task to separate one from another because they are all great, superb and magnificent in their individual repertoire. Their creative endeavour no matter to what country or time they belong, play a very important part in their daily lives. I have always been a voracious reader about musical matters and though not a great pianist, I strived hard to keep all what I learnt, very close to my heart because of which I am sent flying to the Royal Festival Hall when the London Philharmonic Orchestra is at its peak. Scores I learnt and the ones I did not care to learn, I rediscover with fascination. This time as I took my seat at the Royal Festival Hall, it was that great Romantic, Berlioz who crossed the stage under the baton of Yannick Nezet-Seguin, one of the specialist conductors of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra, bringing alive Hector Berlioz.

Yannick's ever-roaming eyes swept past every instrument that stood for the performance of Berlioz. A great pianist himself, Yannick was a perfectionist and he had such control over sound that even if one of his instrumentalists as much as breathed hard, it fell on his ears. Every moment of his baton yielding was a celebration and of boldness and reasoning. He possessed a powerful intellect on what he was doing and provided the rare opportunity to listen especially to Symphonie Fantastique.

Yannick displayed an immaculate dexterity, grace and musicality. The clarity and momentum this score demanded was with what Yannick directed. There was fresh insight to Berlioz and a sense of throughout-charm I discovered though this composer was not in my list of favourites. Yannick's creative genius beckoned me to Berlioz. Yannick who enjoys a world-reputation for his musical integrity, still has a long way to go before he is able to stand in line with LPO's principal conductor, Vladimir Jurowski.

The programme culminated with Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique and it was really fantastic. In Yannick's repertoire were other scores like La Morte De Cleopatre and Overtures. It is not every conductor who takes on Berlioz and I do not know why it is so. There was something also that I discovered about Berlioz. As a performance of Shakespeare's Hamlet unfurled before a Paris audience in 1827, one theatre goer got more than he bargained for.

He not only 'glimpsed the whole heaven of art' on hearing Shakespeare's text, but fell madly in love with Harriet Smithson, a young Irish actress playing Ophelia. That audience member was a young composer, Hector Berlioz. Artistic possibility, passionate love and unerring striving fused in him.

He became the great Romantic he is known as today and set about thrusting all his feelings into a yearning, heartfelt symphony, The Symphonie Fantastique.

Thus, Berlioz's untouchable, captivating musical language was born. Berlioz knew no English and Smithson knew no French and his attempt to contact her met with no success. He sent love letters to her.

At the beginning, they startled and terrified her. He put on a concert of his works to impress her and he rented rooms near all of which was of no avail. Disappointed and dejected, Berlioz transferred his love to a young pianist. Camille Moke who became a kind of surrogate Smithson.

This inspirational story may have influenced Yannick to opt for the works of Berlioz at the LPO. He may also have known that this arch-Romantic was a turbulent, ecstatic, melancholic by turn and eccentric, excessive and egotistic. He was not proficient on any instrument except a touch and go-type pianist. His works apart from what Yannick orchestrated some of which were:

Symphonie Fantastique

This five-movement symphony was Berlioz's first major work and remains his most popular - Vivid imagination has poisoned himself with opium in a fit of love-sick despair. The extraordinary visions he has form the programme of the symphony - Artist's Reveries, the Ball Scenes in the Country, the March to the Scaffold and The Dream of the Witches' Sabbath.

It attracted its fair share of opprobrium; Schumann wrote 'I believe that Berlioz, when a young student of medicine never dissected the head of a handsome murderer with great unwillingness than I feel analyzing his First Movement: Rossini commented succinctly 'What a dedicated thing it isn't music. The score was later dedicated, somewhat bizarrly to the reactionary.

Tsar of Russia perhaps because Berlioz was welcomed to Russia in 1847. Harold En Italie Opp 16 (1834) a successor to the Symphonie Fantastique, the subtitle of the work is Symphony in G for viola and orchestra explains why Paganini was less than enthusiastic at the work he had commissioned.

Berlioz was impressed by the Impressions Recollected from wandering in the Abruzzi mountains. The viola part is a kind of melancholy dreamer in the style of Byron's Childe Harold.

Romeo et Juliette.

Op. 17 (1839) Dramatic symphony for soloists, chorus and orchestra, is based on Shakespeare's play and is most usually encountered through orchestral excerpts such as the Love Music theme and the gossamer-like Queen Mab scherzo.



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