In 1830, when the Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz premiered, Beethoven had been laid in his grave only three years before, Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin were young pianists in Paris with their greatest compositions ahead of them (Liszt's Faust Symphony would not premiere for another 27 years), and his symphonic and orchestral ideas that were to revolutionize musical Romanticism were incomprehensible to all but a very few. Eight years earlier Schubert hinted at the notion of thematic unity through a musical motif with his "Wanderer Fantasy" (later transcribed for orchestra by Liszt who was fascinated with the work). But it is Berlioz, with his "idee fixe" in the Symphonie Fantastique presented as the thematic representation of a young musician's ideal love, who at the young age of 27 changes the course of romantic orchestral music. The symphony contains many other innovations, particularly in the orchestration and instrumentation (Berlioz would later write, Principles of Orchestration, still one of the great works in this field). While he would go on to many more triumphs (at least in historical perspective), including Romeo & Juliet, Harold in Italy, Les Troyens and his Requiem, the Symphonie Fantastique is still probably his best known work.
Last night the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Kent Nagano performed an electrifying and edifying version of this 178 year old masterpiece. Particularly notable was the sensitive handling of the introduction and main theme in the first movement and the exaltation of the brass in the finale. While the second movement waltz and the march to the scaffold in the fourth were lucid, the final coda topped the evening and literally took my breath away. While I have not heard all of the four previous recorded versions of this work by the CSO (two led by Sir George Solti and one each by Claudio Abbado and Daniel Barenboim) it seems unlikely that they could be much better that the performance last night.