A truly Romantic, idealistic, passionate individual and autobiographer extraordinaire, the French composer, Hector Berlioz provoked quite amazing hostility during his lifetime, and even today there remain some who will raise an eyebrows at his elevation to greatness. This may well be partially due to the fact that it is impossible to slot him neatly into the classical world of operas, symphonies and chamber music, sonatas and songs.
Few of his works fit neatly into such categories – instead they take the form dictated to them by Berlioz’s own highly individual dramatic sense in which reality and imagination are one and the same thing. Furthermore, his inspiration was, more often than not, found in litereary works. His symphony, Harold en Italie (inspired by Byron’s poem) could easily be called a viola concerto or an orchestral poem and his Roméo et Juliette (Shakespeare) seems to lie somewhere between an opera, an oratorio and an orchestral piece. And for those who are content to let Berlioz state his case in his own fashion there is a fantastic world of music triggered by literature to be explored.
In 1827, Berlioz happened upon a new French translation of the play, 'Faust' by the great German poet, Goethe and was immediately captivated by it. In his memoirs he related how "this marvelous book fascinated me at once; I could not leave it, I read it incessantly, at meals, in the theatre, in all the streets."
Within a few months he had set a few scenes to music, but it was not until 1845 that he applied himself to the task of writing a mammoth ‘dramatic legend in four parts’ which he called 'La Damnation de Faust'. The real hero here is Mephistopheles (the Devil himself) who is brilliantly portrayed as a highly entertaining character brimming with humor. In particular, the supernatural elements in the story inspired Berlioz to compose passage of super-human imagination and originality, especially in the Ride to the Abyss and Pandemonium, where Faust rides with Mephistopheles to his catastrophic end in hell. Here Berlioz extends the bizarre kinds of sound effects and clashes of harmonies he introduced in his 'Symphonie Fantastique' into an extraordinary array of flashes, shrieks and horrific roars as the enormous orchestra, complete with four sets of timpani and chorus, graphically conjures up a horrifying picture of the underworld.
Decades ahead of his time, Berlioz’s muisc was incomprehensible to his performers, his audience and his critics. A truly astonishing piece, 'La Damnation de Faust,' was a pitiful fiasco at its premiere, and it was never accepted in Berlioz’s home country until long after his death. It fell to France’s European neighbours to rescue it from oblivion before finally becoming universally accepted as a great masterpiece over a century after its composition.
Valery Gergiev needs no convincing as to Berlioz's stature. Here he lets loose all the demons of hell in a visceral performance of La Damnation de Faust.