A romantic, in life and music

During his lifetime, the composer Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) regularly riled such critics as New York's George Templeton Strong who called the Frenchman's work "flatulent rubbish ... the work of a tipsy chimpanzee."

But in this, his 200th anniversary year, the composer of the "Symphonie fantastique," "Romeo et Juliette,"and the opera "Les Troyens," has moved up the evolutionary scale.

"He was the first genuine romantic composer," says British maestro Sir Colin Davis.

The "Symphonie fantastique," written in 1830, "probably explains the whole thing," says Mr. Davis, who has just released a series of new recordings of the composer's works on the LSO Live label. "It is still one of the most popular pieces in the repertory because of its inimitable qualities: the sound, form, energy, bizarre episodes, and epoch-making harmonies."

Berlioz's romanticism, says Davis, consisted in his unique mixture of "ideas, classicism, and his wildness. I love his intelligence.... People have been discovering the whole new world he created, new rhythms and new colors, new ways of writing melodies, a sense of drama. He didn't fit into the French idea of an academic elite who must obey the rules."

Canadian tenor Ben Heppner, who sings the key role of Énée in Davis' version of the massive opera "Les Troyens" (LSO Live), says singing the work of a composer who broke all the rules can be difficult.

"The role of Énée seems to be written for three or four different singers rather than just one," says Mr. Heppner, who will be performing the same role at the Metropolitan Opera in New York this spring.

Berlioz's harmonies are always "a bit of a surprise," says Heppner. "You may think the melody is going one way, but then he does something unexpected. It is quite different in compositional style from the German sensibility of Wagner."

Despite his love for Berlioz's music, Heppner finds the composer's arch-romantic life difficult to take.

Berlioz's famous "Memoirs," newly reprinted by Alfred A. Knopf, recounts wild manic-depressive episodes, hair-raising love affairs, and high-flying feelings.

Romantic is certainly the only word to describe the man who wrote: "Love cannot give an idea of music; music can give an idea of love. But why separate them? They are the two wings of the soul."

For his part, Heppner chuckles at the thought of Berlioz weeping all day while reading poetry: "I thought, 'This kid's weird.' I don't relate easily to that."

Davis retorts: "Yes, Berlioz is weird, but I read poetry and weep too, and if you don't, you're missing out!"

One singer determined not to miss out is the American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, considered to be a master Berlioz interpreter. Ms. Graham, who performed Berlioz's lyrical song cycle "Les Nuits d'Été [Summer Nights]" at New York's Carnegie Hall last month, says Berlioz has a dramatic impetus that sets his music apart from other French composers. "His innovative use of orchestral colors heightens the drama, and his vibrant rhythmic energies can propel the action and heighten the emotion....

"The supernatural subject matter in the 'Nuits' lends itself to all kinds of ghostly, almost whispered singing, and at times he even specifies demi-voix [half-voice]."

Likewise, Davis points to the quieter moments in Berlioz that first bewitched him at 21, when he heard excerpts from the oratorio "L'Enfance du Christ" at summer school.

"I'd never heard any melody of this kind and this delicacy," Davis recalls. "Berlioz is associated with trumpets and drums, but his genius really lies in these melodies - you'll find no greater expressions of romantic love than in the love scene of 'Romeo et Juliette.' Richard Wagner said they opened up a new world of sound."

Of course, there are still some dissenters, even in the composer's homeland of France. The noted Parisian critic Jacques Drillon says he admires Berlioz as a journalist, letter writer, and author, "but I don't really like Berlioz the composer. He often makes me grit my teeth, indeed, I continually have to grit my teeth when his music plays."

But even Mr. Drillon admits that Berlioz is France's "only romantic composer" and hence will always deserve celebrating.

Veteran French conductor Serge Baudo, who has made many recordings of Berlioz's music, says the composer has finally found his audience in France, "although there are still some objections. The musicologists and critics have not always been tender with him, just as he himself was not always tender with them!"

Celebrating Hector Berlioz
Live performances: Feb. 10-22

Les Troyens The Metropolitan Opera, New York

An all-star cast tackles Berlioz's mighty and lengthy masterwork, including soprano Deborah Voigt, mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina, and tenor Ben Heppner.

April 26

Harold en Italie Popejoy Hall, Albuquerque, N.M.

As part of a local Berlioz festival, the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Guillermo Figueroa perform an arch-romantic work with viola soloist Nokuthula Ngwenyama (further information at www.berliozfestival.org).

June 10-29 July 3

La Damnation de Faust San Francisco Opera

Donald Runnicles conducts the highly dramatic stage work with resonant bass Kristinn Sigmundsson as Méphistophélès.

Ten Best on Disc:

Roméo et Juliette Universal Classics: Wily old maestro Pierre Monteux offers a passionate reading of this fiery tale.

La Damnation de Faust BBC Legends: A thrilling live performance by luxuriant French soprano Regine Crespin.

Requiem Orfeo D'Or

The exquisitely refined tenor soloist Leopold Simoneau is guided through this grandiose work by the ardent conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos.

Les Nuits d'Été Sony: A true American voice, Eleanor Steber, expresses convincingly a woman's life and loves in this lyric masterpiece.

Beatrice et Benedict Erato: John Nelson leads an outstanding cast, including mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, in this quicksilver version of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing."

L'Enfance du Christ London: British tenor Peter Pears is among the cast of this poignant Christmas choral work.

Symphonie fantastique LSO Live: Among the many competing versions of this showpiece, this new one by Sir Colin Davis is one of the finest.

Symphonie fantastique RCA Victor: For those who can never have enough fantastiques, this boiling version by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony is also a delight.

Berlioz - Les Troyens LSO Live: With the London Symphony Orchestra playing its heart out and soloists such as Canadian tenor Ben Heppner, Colin Davis does the unthinkable and tops his previous great recording of the same monumental opera.

Immortal Toscanini Vol 9 RCA Victor: Certainly one of the best Berlioz conductors ever, Toscanini offers riveting performances of the "Carnaval Romain" overture and glittering "Queen Mab Scherzo" from "Romeo et Juliette."

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