In the first slice of this four-part Schumann exploration John Eliot Gardiner and a mostly standing LSO gave compelling accounts of the Second Symphony and the Overture to Genoveva. While the stage was being re-set for the Berlioz Sir John Eliot made a historical and musical case for performing thus, arguing that it brings better interaction and more-soloistic playing, although these qualities were not lost in the seated rendition of Les Nuits d'été.
Berlioz’s six songs to poems by Théophile Gautier are gems of the French Romantic repertoire and their orchestral versions can sometimes throw up balance issues between singer(s) and accompanists. Not so here in these brilliantly effective readings enshrined in Ann Hallenberg’s love of the music and her engagement with it. She is a wonderful communicator and brought to these fantasies an intimacy of expression and intensity of delivery that was superb, and more than compensated for any shortcomings in the clarity of diction or the faithfulness of pronunciation. She has terrific breath control too, demonstrably so in the dangerously slow tempo of ‘Le Spectre de la Rose’, in which one admired her beauty of tone, also in the grief-stricken ‘Sur les lagunes’, its mood enhanced by mournful horn and delicate woodwinds, while ‘Absence’ has rarely sounded so poised. I’ve heard more buoyant accounts of the two outer songs but there’s no denying Hallenberg’s total immersion, the LSO’s involvement and Gardiner’s sensitivity, who had earlier given Genoveva a zesty vibrant account, full of light and shade, its dramatic incident fully realised.
Schumann’s Second Symphony was given a life-enhancing performance that swept aside any accusations of “mediocre thematic invention” (Mosco Carner) and brought out the work’s freshness and vigour. Outer movements were rhythmically taut, and the tour de force that is the Scherzo featured fabulous string-playing; Gardiner negotiated tempo changes to perfection and woodwinds made colourful contributions to the Trio sections. The musicians responded gratifyingly to the Adagio’s heart-wrenching invention, not least oboist Olivier Stankiewicz whose phrasing was a thing of beauty, and the whole had an almost unbearable emotional power, and the Finale was blistering. Gardiner gave the closing section of the Scherzo as an encore.