Berlioz the Innovator (15 & 16 November 2000)

Le Carnaval Romain
La Mort de Cléopâtre
Symphonie fantastique

Roméo et Juliette

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenmentconducted by Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 15 November, 2000
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

London, three years before the Berlioz bicentenary (2003), has been enjoying an unrivalled (and probably unrepeatable) focus on France’s greatest composer. Sir Colin Davis shortly ends the LSO’s year-long Berlioz Odyssey at the Barbican Centre with three performances of Les Troyens (complete on December 3 and 9, with the opera’s two parts also on the evenings of December 6 and 7). Meanwhile, over the river on the South Bank, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is concentrating this season on pivotal points in the development of the orchestra. Two concerts with Sir Simon Rattle featured both Romeo &Juliet and Symphonie Fantastique, following a European tour running them in (in R&J’s case only the orchestral music), putting Berlioz centre-stage in context with other developments of the orchestra in the OAE’s wider series.

To my way of thinking, you can never get enough Berlioz, and one seriously hopes that Sir Colin is kidding when he says he will leave the bicentenary year to others. But perhaps we have uncovered another superlative Berliozian in Sir Simon Rattle. Certainly it seems so on the strength of these concerts. An Italian thread ran through them, as it did through much of Berlioz’s life. Le Carnaval Romain was salvaged from the opera Benvenuto Cellini, which was not the great breakthrough for which Berlioz had hoped. Le Mort de Cléopâtre was his third attempt (of five) to win the Prix de Rome, which he was eventually to benefit from, the prize being a period of study in Rome. While Symphonie fantastique is the exception that proves the general rule, the Italian connection should be clear enough from the subject matter of Berlioz’s Shakespeare symphony. However, one should not forget that the ’subject’ of Symphonie fantastique was based on Berlioz’s own infatuation and spurned love for the actress Harriet Smithson, who he first saw play Juliet, and was thrown into an artistic fervour that resulted in this Episode in the Life of an Artist.

Rattle – slightly late for the first concert as he had been stuck in traffic – made up time in a sizzling performance of the Overture. The Cantata is more emotionally charged (an ingenious staging-post between the sheer good-spirits of the overture and the – ultimately – bad spirits of the symphony) and Anne Sofie von Otter was a suitably rich-toned soloist for Cleopatra’s valediction, recognising her faults in being the one to enslave Egypt to the Roman yoke, and – after the mournful meditation – seeking final recourse with the asp. Rattle coaxed wonderful instrumental timbres and sonorities from his players, constantly amazing even to those who know the work well on modern instruments. Light vibrato (at the very most) gives the string base a substantially edgier sound to the plush sheen we are used to with modern instruments and practices. Wind and brass declare their independence, revelling in their differences rather than creating modern-style homogeneity. The result is strange and exciting, and I am bewildered by arguments that such performances are worthless (just as I am astounded, contrariwise, at the equivalently extreme view that Bach, Handel and Haydn shouldn’t be played on modern instruments!). As Simon Rattle commented in the programme, it is essential we can hear the sounds with which Berlioz himself would have been experimenting, because that allows us to understand better not only his genius, but also his lasting influence on music. One does wonder, though, whether such brilliantly prepared and executed performances could ever be authentic, when the original players (and audiences) were so often dumfounded about what Berlioz required – you can easily imagine that premieres and early performances were seriously debilitated by default.

Rattle chose the second edition of Symphonie fantastique, with cornet solo added to the Ball Scene, and the programme correctly printed the revised scenario, in which the artist in question has already taken narcotics before the start (in the original version the first three movements are drug-less, only the March to the Scaffold and the Witches’ Sabbath are opium-induced). With basses arrayed at the back, and antiphonal violins, plus four harps backing up the cellos at ten o’clock, and with not one but two ophicleides joining the trombones, Rattle had at his disposal a sonic Pandora’s box which responded to his – and Berlioz’s – every demand. I have heard Rattle conduct the work twice before (indeed, it closed the first concert I ever saw him conduct, Philharmonia Orchestra, same hall, 27 November 1979; then more recently with the Vienna Philharmonic, same hall, 23 April 1997), and what still impresses is his brilliant pacing, especially in the final two movements.

If this first OAE concert was astounding, Roméo et Juliette was even more so. The layout may not have been as authentic as Roger Norrington would argue for (and which he did at his Berlioz Experience in March 1988), where the six harps should have been in two sets of three facing each other, immediately in front of the conductor (with Rattle they retained their place behind the cellos), but the performance was so alert and scintillating that it is difficult to imagine it better played. Stage-managed to perfection, with soloists, semi-chorus and chorus only appearing when necessary, Rattle guided us through the extraordinary creation (which has equal claims to the title cantata rather than symphony) with obvious love as well as commitment. I would even go so far to say that this was probably the best Rattle performance I have ever seen, but that might well be influenced by my (perhaps irrational) liking for the work. Received wisdom informs us that it doesn’t work; that it falls between too many stools. All I say is listen to the music: whether it be the mesmeric ball scene, rumbustious and rowdy (a world away from what refined society do in Symphonie fantastique); the plaintive choruses in the balcony scene, or their strewing flowers for the (supposedly) dead Juliet; the flighty Queen Mab scherzo or the elemental music Berlioz composed for the final tragic scene where Romeo arrives at Juliet’s tomb and kills himself before she has time to come round from her sleeping draught. All these were enhanced by the fresh timbres of the authentic instruments.

If Berlioz’s array of singers denied the audience its chance for justified acclamation for Anne Sofie von Otter and Barry Banks at the end (both only singing for a short time at the start of the Symphony and not appearing for the curtain calls), that was a small price to pay in an evening of telling detail and thrilling music-making. John Tomlinson, subtler than of late (especially welcome after his barking of the bass part at this year’s Proms’ Beethoven 9) and perhaps less characterful than one might have supposed, entered at the end to whip the double chorus (one side Capulets, the other Montagues) into contrition, thus ending the work with a glorious oath to heal old wounds, settle old debts and live in peace hereafter.

Perhaps it is not too impertinent to hope – and suggest – that Berlioz the Innovator 2 can bring this sparkling team together again in 2003 for authentic performances of The Trojans.

One incidental note – the well-produced programme (with excellent and informative notes by Julian Rushton) puts the Orchestra and its players centre-stage, not only in the wonderful trompe l’oeil photos of each player looking into a mirror where the reflection is of that player in period costume (let alone holding their period instrument) but also profiling a particular orchestra member. This programme just happened to feature the player pictured on the cover: second horn, Martin Lawrence. Being a fellow Cumbrian, I used to play in the Cumbria Youth Orchestra (and various other groups) with Martin more years ago than I (and I’m sure he) cares to remember! Just a small, personal, additional pleasure to two evenings that will live long in my memory.

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