Berlioz & Beethoven @ Maida Vale

Le corsaire – Overture, Op.21
Herminie – scène lyrique
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)

Daphné Touchais (soprano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Lawrence Renes

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 19 January, 2007
Venue: BBC Studio 1, Maida Vale, London

Lawrence Renes has been gaining something of a reputation – mentioned in dispatches (as it were, and not least when replacing Riccardo Chailly at a Concertgebouw Orchestra concert in 1995) – although his abilities have not been tested much in London. This may have been his debut in the capital or it was certainly a rare appearance here. For the BBC Symphony Orchestra this was a strikingly conventional programme – excepting Berlioz’s “Herminie”, a relative rarity.

Renes, described as Maltese/Dutch, Amsterdam-trained, and closely associated with musical matters in Bremen, Arnhem and Stockholm, is a lithe and elegant conductor, and seems equally happy in the concert hall and opera house.

This BBC studio concert, an afternoon gig, had a slightly unkempt feel to it; it’s more usual for performances here to be recorded for future broadcast with re-takes if needed (even if an audience is present). This was a live broadcast, somewhat impromptu in presentation and in the pre-Beethoven chat with the conductor; we even had a snippet of Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet (the recorded interval music for those listening on BBC Radio 3) creeping into the silent bars that end Berlioz’s dramatic cantata!

Berlioz’s brilliant Byronic overture – somewhat linked to his lordship by default – may be of a seafaring derivation but was here somewhat land-locked; rather too careful if dynamically considered. A few more cellos and double basses than the, respectively, six and four that were present would have added some necessary heft to proceedings; and Renes could usefully have opted for antiphonal violins. Such strictures hold good for the whole concert.

If the overture lacked derring-do, then “Herminie” made a big impression. Berlioz’s entry for the “Prix de Rome” of 1828 (he took second position) sets words by Tasso (with some changes of direction) concerning Herminie’s love for Tancred (and not forgetting the warring Clorinda). Berlioz’s work is characteristic of him and includes material he would re-use (modified) in Symphonie fantastique. Renes’s conducting of it was convinced and convincing – and brought out the operatic leaning of the music while securing a honed response from the BBCSO. As soloist, as Erminia, Daphné Touchais impressed with a secure technique, rich tone, sensitivity to words and Berlioz’s individual setting of them (albeit influenced by Gluck); her unforced shapeliness of phrase was musically satisfying and, if a tad more drama could have been eked out, there was an emotional focus here that brought “Herminie” well and truly into the limelight.

Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ wasn’t so convincing, overall, although it had many fine points, not least the BBCSO’s wind-playing. With not enough lower strings, there was a tendency towards unduly ‘lightweight’ textures, and in what might be termed a ‘period-conscious’ performance, the quick tempos adopted did induce some breathlessness (certainly in the opening movement), although the ‘Scene by the Brook’ – if in pictorial terms decidedly hasty – was remarkably well poised. When the peasants made merry in the scherzo they did so with grace and earthiness, but the storm was tepid, partly due to reticent timpani. The scales tilted again for the ‘Thanksgiving’ finale, which was especially well handled, with real feeling, and, by now, a couple of irksome rhythmic ambiguities from earlier were now forgotten.

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