Berlioz for Christmas

Berlioz for Christmas

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

And Liszt for the New Year! Here we go.

Hector Berlioz (1803–69) was no novice by the time he created L’enfance du Christ. Well past the sensational premiere of the Symphonie fantastique and his triumph with the Prix de Rome—something he won only on his fourth try—he began work on L’enfance in 1850, by accident. Arriving at a party at which card-playing was the primary amusement, he gladly accepted his friend Pierre Duc’s suggestion that he spend the evening creating a musical autograph. On the spot, Berlioz began to sketch the now-famous “Shepherds’ Farewell.”

Later that year, casting around for material to fill out a concert program, he decided to present this music as a newly discovered manuscript from an obscure 17th-century French composer, “Pierre Ducré.” The trick worked: everyone praised it. One critic called the music far superior to anything Berlioz himself had written. Eventually he completed an entire segment, “The Holy Family’s Flight into Egypt,” and performed it in Germany as his own work. Enthusiastic supporters encouraged him to create something still more substantial, and so he did. In 1854 the whole triptych (Herod’s Dream, The Flight, and The Arrival at Saïs) was performed in Paris—and acclaimed. Feeling vindicated and creatively reborn, Berlioz decided to try larger projects again, including a monumental setting of Virgil’s Aeneid that would become Les Troyens.

The central narrative of L’enfance seems sadly contemporary: a young Middle Eastern couple flee their homeland when threatened by a murderous tyrant. Arriving in Egypt, Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus are denied shelter by natives but finally taken in by a compassionate émigré family “born in Lebanon, in Syria.” Thus, as Berlioz put it in his libretto, “it came to pass that by an unbeliever our Savior was saved.”

I’ve long admired classic recordings of this charming post-Nativity story as led by Charles Munch (RCA, 1956) and by Colin Davis a bit later. Among more recent recorded efforts, that of Robin Ticciati and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (Linn CKD 440; 2 SACDs) is a strong contender. Recorded in crystalline high-res sound from live performances, we are placed in front-stall seats that provide every nuance, from the buzzy warmth of the cellos to a delicate flutes-and-harp trio that enlivens part 3. (As a child, Berlioz had mastered both flute and guitar.) Producer-engineer Philip Hobbs strikes a nice balance: you’ll hear the choir rise and sit, but you’ll never feel uncomfortably close to soprano Véronique Gens (Mary) or bass Alastair Miles (Herod/Ishmaelite Father). Here is some of the “Shepherds’ Farewell”:

Ticciati’s performance, while warmly expressive, wisely preserves Berlioz’s calculated naïveté and chamber-music scale. Kudos to Linn also, for a gorgeous 60-page text booklet with musicological notes and a perceptive essay on “Theological Perspective” that ranges much further than “theology.” Let’s hear some of the Ishmaelite flute dance, a moment that Berlioz surely associated with his own childhood:

Or perhaps you would prefer authentic 17th-century French music for the season. Just in time comes a brand-new offering from Sébastien Daucé and Ensemble Correspondances of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Pastorale sur la naissance de notre Seigneur Jésus Christ (Harmonia Mundi HMC 902247). I’ve praised Daucé’s work before in this column. He continues to advocate for Charpentier (1643–1704) as the greatest composer of his generation, and when you hear his Ensemble play and sing this, you will see why. Huge chunks of the album are available here; you can also stream the whole thing on Spotify if you have a (free) basic account. Here’s HM’s official trailer:


What else? Well, maybe it’s time for a new (or your first) Symphonie fantastique. The industry keeps turning out new recordings of this old favorite. But there’s a need for the good ones, because this music must be continually refreshed, resuscitated, resurrected at the hands of great interpreters. It depicts the wild emotional flights of a young composer in love. Spontaneity is essential.

Ticciati and his home team, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, did a nice job for Linn recently. But I am much more taken by Daniel Harding’s new reading with the Swedish Radio SO (those Swedes again! Harmonia Mundi HMC 902244). They pull off this fiery, volatile work with superior dynamic nuance, tempo flexibility and transparency of detail. I heard lines I’d never properly appreciated before. The release is filled out with a dance suite by Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764), and believe it or not, this helps. You’ll find yourself making comparisons that otherwise wouldn’t have surfaced. Check out the fire and finesse in the 2nd-movement waltz (“Un bal”):

And so to Franz Liszt (1811–86). I’ve been reading Ben Ratliff’s book Every Song Ever. He organizes his topic, “twenty ways to listen,” into 20 succinct chapters, each devoted to a single aspect of music, like repetition, slowness, speed. Also, virtuosity.

Music lovers routinely call Liszt a “virtuoso.” He certainly did develop technical skills way beyond those of his peers. But merely elevating one’s technique is not enough. Ratliff, a jazz critic, gets closer to the full-on definition when he writes

Jazz is often entered into by musicians who might feel that their gift is too large to be contained by pop or the church or classical music. . . .

Are the truest virtuosos complete? They seem to want to be, don’t they? They want to surround you and spread their shadow of certainty over the entire history of their form.

It wasn’t enough that Liszt played rings around other pianists; he felt compelled to compose as well, and to invent new genres (e.g., the symphonic poem) as he did so. Furthermore, he supported other composers, commissioning their work, sponsoring performances, preparing piano transcriptions of their symphonies and greatest-hits medleys of their operas (he called them concert paraphrases). By doing all that, Liszt often managed to become the Man of the Hour even on occasions when he was ostensibly not. Whatever he turned his hand to, he turned it grandly.

How to listen to Liszt? Many paths lead to salvation. A while ago I got ahold of Kirill Gerstein’s hi-res recording of the Transcendental Études (Myrios MYR019). His performance was pretty darn good. And the recording quality was superb. I got his Sonata in B Minor, also pretty darn good.

And then I heard Daniil Trifonov play this repertoire. My jaw hit the floor. A veil was lifted. Et cetera. Trifonov’s new DG album, Transcendental, features the Paganini Études, two sets of Concert Études, and of course the Transcendentals.

Let’s compare the first two minutes of each performer’s reading of Transcendental No. 4, “Mazeppa.” Gerstein:


Trifonov takes slow movements slower and fast movements faster. But that’s the “easy” part, i.e., Romantic Interpretation 101. He also has the horsepower and control needed to whip around corners, dodge, feint, accelerate, and stop on a dime. Which he harnesses in the service of the deep, wild content that Liszt brings to these stories. Barbara Jepson, writing in WSJ, notes Trifonov’s “keen sense of structure.” Exactly. They’re not just technical “studies.” They’re stories.

Here is a little of “Gnomenreigen” (“Gnomes’ Dance”):

And “Un sospiro” (“A Sigh”):

Why do we even call them “études”? Because they pose technical problems for the pianist. The treble melody in “Un sospiro” has to be picked out by alternating left and right hands to play single notes. (Looks flashy in performance, but you can’t see it on a recording.) Live or Memorex, it should sound absolutely seamless. If the pianist is a virtuoso, it will.  

Want more? Pianist Leslie Howard has recorded every note of Liszt’s piano music. Howard is no Trifonov, but he’s pretty darn good. Once you’re hooked on Liszt, this could be the way to roll.

It’s guaranteed to keep you busy well into 2017.

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