Berlioz's Symphonie fantastisque has been astonishing audiences for 181 years and if today we hear it as the work that marked the high tide of 19th-century Romanticism, it's still fascinating to think how an 1836 audience – critics apart – must have received this game-changing opus. Even now, it retains some of its capacity to surprise; the idée fixe that drives the first movement and recurs throughout wasn't an entirely new idea, but Berlioz took it further and in a performance such as this one from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orhcestra under Vasily Petrenko, you get a sense of its history.

Vasily Petrenko © Mark McNulty
Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty

The first movement "Rêveries – Passions" had all the elusive (and allusive) persuasiveness of a dream dimly recollected, with the first appearance of the idée fixe, the contrasting moods of vexation and contemplation carefully balanced. There was even an element of Gallic suavity in the way Petrenko led the horns through the central section, no mean feat for a Liverpudlian orchestra conducted by a Russian. The second movement, in which the idée fixe is dressed in a ball-gown, had all the requisite sprightliness, with some fine work from the harps. Sadly, the Scène aux champs is the movement in which the symphony hangs fire and no conductor has ever been able to convince me otherwise: not even the threat of a storm or the recollection of the idée fixe can arrest the becalming effect of this section, altough the RLPO forces did what they could. The final two movements are a different matter entirely and Petrenko and the band marched rousingly to the Scaffold before treating us to a suitably grotesque Witches' Sabbath. A few stray horn fluffs aside, this was as convincing a performance as you're likely to hear anywhere in the UK.

Earlier, the orchestra was joined by soloist Baiba Skride for Szymanowski's First Violin Concerto, a work which at times seems less like a concerto than an eerie tone poem with a violin obbligato. Skride spun the opening line as smoothly as silk and after a few initial struggles with balance, her contribution was assured, rising to heights of considerable virtuosity in the cadenza. Although it precedes Berg's more famous Violin Concerto by ten years, the likeness between the two works is striking, even if Szymanowski's inspiration seems far more decadent than Berg's, at times sounding like the sountrack to some very depraved goings on. Petrenko did an impeccable job of holding it together and giving a coherent shape to a work that might have seemed embarrasingly over-ripe in less judicious hands.  

By comparison, purer thoughts seem to have inspired the concert opener, Kodály's Dances Of Galánta. Perhapst not as immediately appealing as some of this composer's other minor pieces, it nevertheless allowed the RLPO to show off its strengths in all departments from the effulgent opening flourish to the parts for different orchestral groups: the section for solo oboe stood out, mellifluously played by Ruth Davies.