‘A young artist of morbidly sensitive temperament and fiery imagination poisons himself with opium in a fit of lovesick despair.’

With those words, Berlioz introduced his Symphonie fantastique at its Parisian premiere in 1830, and listeners were left with little doubt that the ‘young artist of morbidly sensitive temperament’ was Berlioz himself.

The five movements follow a novel-like journey from despair and longing, through a hallucinatory ball scene and intense loneliness amid nature.

Then the dream turns sour: the artist imagines he has murdered his beloved and witnesses his own execution, after which a coven of witches dances on his grave.

Yet for all this rampant pictorialism, the Symphonie fantastique is also a symphony. So a great performance has to balance these contradictory demands: it must tell an emotive, sensational story, but convince as a musical argument, too.

The best recording of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique

Sir Colin Davis (conductor)
London Symphony Orchestra (2001)
LSO Live LSO 0007

Berlioz’s greatest interpreter of modern times recorded the Symphonie fantastique three times, but this most recent version is the most gripping and satisfying, deftly treading a fine line between self-revelation and self-indulgence.

The volcanic outpourings of feeling are as intense as they should be, yet in the quieter moments – especially in the central ‘Scene in the Country’ – Davis achieves a wonderfully expressive pianissimo, in which every detail seems to convey meaning, all caught splendidly by the live recording.

Each appearance of the idée fixe – the theme that stands not so much for the beloved as the artist’s febrile obsession with her – is strikingly or subtly different.

We sense the progress of the ‘vision’ from adoration, through horror, to release. The first and third movements have a nobility amid the mood-swings, then the moment at the end of the ‘Scene in the Country’, where the shepherd’s piping is answered not by a distant oboe but by menacing rumbles of thunder, is a finely calculated psychological turning point.

The last two movements are pure Hammer Horror gothic, especially the astonishing, acridly scored moment when the idée fixe waltzes grotesquely back onto the stage. The final witches’ round dance is a splendid ghoulish knees-up, but it’s also a colossal act of emotional purgation. We named the London Symphony Orchestras one of the best orchestras in the world

Three more great recordings of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique

John Eliot Gardiner (conductor)
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (1993)
Philips 434 4022

Gardiner’s is the outstanding ‘period instrument’ version. The word that comes to mind repeatedly during the driven but crisply articulate first two movements is ‘dashing’.

Gardiner is excellent at long crescendos: well controlled build-ups, then the emotion boiling over at the climax. It isn’t just in the big outpourings of feeling that he scores: at the beginning of the central lonely pastorale, the flavoursome 19th-century French oboe and cor anglais are two voices calling to each other across wide spaces, in the background a sense of growing unease.

Discomfort and deliciously grotesque orchestral colouring grow splendidly during the ‘March to the Scaffold’. The finale is a sinister spine-tingler, with Gardiner’s anachronistic recorded cathedral bells the only disappointment.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor)
Rotterdam Philharmonic (2010)

In Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s Fantastique the story is above all emotional. Nézet-Séguin doesn’t wallow in ‘sensitivity’, but there is plenty of feeling. It sounds beautiful – full credit to the BIS engineering team – yet at the same time we’re always aware of movement.

This Fantastique is never static: if it isn’t surging forward then it’s in a state of expectant transition, ready to move at the next musical stimulus. The pictorial element is less vivid – this is more Berlioz on the therapist’s couch, reliving his emotions, than a diary-like record of a vivid dream.

But the final round dance features some splendidly athletic witches, and the sense of having emerged from something at the end – the worst of the delusion is past – is uplifting.

Pierre Boulez (conductor)
Cleveland Orchestra (1997)
DG 453 4322

A strong counterbalance to both Gardiner and Nézet-Séguin. The turbo-charged potential of the modern orchestra is released here with Boulez’s usual expert control.

The transition from the first movement’s desolate introduction to impetuous Allegro is typical: pregnant stillness, then growth, then surging current. Hans Keller famously accused Boulez of ‘non-phrasing’. But as Berlioz introduces his idée fixe, Boulez does a splendid job of conveying both her shapeliness and the feelings that arouses.

Boulez’s sense of symphonic shape is compelling: nobody makes a better case for Symphonie fantastique as a musical structure. If it does sound a little detached emotionally, there’s a feeling of playful irony – also a very Berliozian quality – which makes that detachment credible.

And one to avoid

Sample Riccardo Muti’s recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra at any point and you might conclude this is the kind of no-holds-barred performance the Symphonie fantastique needs.

There are terrific moments: in the ‘March to the Scaffold’ you can picture the baying mob and the ‘beloved’ leering out of the crowd before the blade descends. But this performance can also be, pardon the pun, ‘hectoring’.

This work can also be subtle and delicate, but from this version, you’d never guess.

Read more reviews of the latest Berlioz recordings here