Skip to content Skip to navigation

Reveling in Romanticism

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Fri Mar 30th, 2018

Coline Berland, Michael Rau, Leon Botstein, and Orchestra

Walter Braunfels (1882-1954), an important Roman Catholic figure (he converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism after a near-death experience in the WW I) for 20th-century German music, played a vital role in the restoration of his country's musical education after World War II. Like Berlioz, Braunfel was deeply influenced by literature. Four of his five operas were banned by the Nazis because he was half-Jewish.

Wilhelm Furtwängler used to conduct the 50-minute Fantastic Appearances on a Theme by Berlioz (1917), it was inspired by “The Song of the Flea” from Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust (1846), which Berlioz called a “dramatic legend” for four solo voices and seven-part chorus. Filmmaker Terry Gilliam directed his opera debut of The Damnation of Faust at London's English National Opera (2011). In 2015 the Opéra National de Paris mischievously interpreted the role of Faust through the persona of English scientist Stephen Hawking.

Fantastic Appearances has twelve movements with an intro and finale, the most memorable being the first, third, ninth, twelfth movement, and finale. Leon Botstein conducted The Orchestra Now with energy and encouragement. Botstein has recently been championing forgotten or censored works and pairing them with notable classics.

Concertmaster Coline Berland delivered an eloquent introduction before she played with great passion. The dozen movements of Fantastic Appearances ( premiered in 1920) offer fragmentary collage that indicate social breakdown, yet its Romantic idiom looks backward—it appears to conceive an anguished notion of the modern, but does not possess the language to speak the horror. Nevertheless, the orchestration was lively and interesting. The pastiche quotations of Strauss and Wagner appear to indicate that their old-world idiom fails to be relevant to the nightmare of war; they made me recall T.S. Eliot’s technique in The Wasteland (1922). I began to wonder if Ezra Pound, a music enthusiast if there ever was one, had Braunfels in mind when editing Eliot’s famous manuscript. There appears to be a psychological and technical parallel.

For Symphonie fantastique (1830), Berlioz was inspired in part by the “impassioned prose” of Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821). Few composers have been influenced by literature as much as Berlioz, whose Memoirs (1870 ), indebted to Rousseau, display the incremental development of a Romantic musical genius amid the backdrop of the nineteenth century—a work all students should read.

While melodies are sparse, those that are present have a forceful quality. In five movements the orchestration remains novel: violins, flutes, and cellos play together as if they are choral entities personifying archetypal voices. They provide tonal, operatic, solo-like color as they play a particular dramatic melody set against the whole orchestra. The Rossini-like pizzicato of the violas also display a choral quality. While the two tubas shout bright resonance, two harps offer a subtle underpinning. Berlioz employs the whole orchestra in an innovative manner for his day and more greatly influenced Russian music than French music—especially Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov.

The obsession with a central and thwarted love provides firm unity. The knock against Berlioz is that he verges on the bombastic, yet small touches of self-mockery, especially in percussion, allow a subversive satiric undertow (as in his boasting Memoirs) that makes his melodramatic waves of sound deliciously successful. I was delighted Botstein caught that undertow without over-emphasis.  

What is remarkable about this hallucinatory symphony remains the stamp of a personal voice. Here, the obsession of love creates the first program music, which was a way of making the architecture and emotions of the music accessible to a wider public. The dramatic imaginary ascent to the scaffold, where percussion is central recalls not only the possible self-martyrdom of the composer but of other noted French Revolution martyrs of genius—the chemist Lavoisier, the poet Chenier, the publisher Danton.

The Orchestra Now performed with intense gusto; it was clear that Dan Honaker on tuba was not the only player to revel in the Romantic exuberance of Berlioz. Kelly Mozeik on oboe was also giving her all and Micah Candiotti-Pacheco played the clarinet with a pure clarity. In addition to emotional turmoil, the simple fact is that the Symphony fantastique remains deliriously thrilling when performed with passion. This concert was performed at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater.