A Berlioz Celebration live on Radio 3

January 25, 2019

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Composer Hector Berlioz’ work will be celebrated with a concert marking 150 years since his death. Saffron Hall will be hosting the BBC Symphony Orchestra on Sunday 17 February in a concert to celebrate the French Romantic composer. The concert will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3.

The centrepiece of the programme will be his captivating Symphonie fantastique, just as dazzling today as it was when first performed in 1830, when the composer was just 26. Berlioz wrote the piece in an attempt to win the affections of actress Harriet Smithson, who he later married.

Symphonie fantastique is cast in five movements: a dream, a ball, a country scene, and two nightmares. At the ball the artist is haunted by the sight of his beloved. After the rural scene, the fourth movement slips into horror.

As Berlioz himself once explained: “Convinced that his love is spurned, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of narcotic plunges him into a heavy sleep. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold and is witnessing his own execution.”

In the fifth movement, everything descends into the thrilling Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath, which weaves in the

medieval Dies Irae plainchant. This sinister Latin hymn recounts the Last Judgement, when arrivals before God’s throne are either delivered or sent to burn in the eternal flames. This last movement depicts how the artist’s perfect beloved transforms into a courtesan and is cast into hell.

The programme also includes Berlioz’ six-song cycle Les Nuits d’été, a far gentler composition from 1841, tracing the progress of love, from youthful innocence to loss and finally renewal. Usually performed by solo voice, this will be sung by four voices, as in Berlioz’ 1856 version. Well- established mezzo-soprano Catherine Rice will be joined in this by rising stars Jess Dandy, James Newby and James Way.

The concert will begin with a real treat: Berlioz’ instrumental arrangement of Weber’s Invitation to the Dance. The tunes in this are instantly recognisable; in fact one of them was “borrowed” by the King of Swing, Benny Goodman, for his theme tune Let’s Dance. Under the baton of Garsington Opera’s Artistic Director Douglas Boyd, this rare opportunity to hear these works together is not to be missed.