Hell and Damnation – LSO/Colin Davis (23 Feb)

La Damnation de Faust

Marguerite – Petra Lang
Faust – Stuart Neill
Mephistopheles – Alastair Miles
Brander – Jonathan Lemalu

London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 23 February, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Not so much a review, more of celebration of this remarkable music in a wholly remarkable performance, the second instalment of Colin Davis’s “Re-embarkation on his Berlioz Odyssey” – forgetting perhaps that even Odysseus was only obliged to make the trip once. Whatever, as our American cousins would say. The gain was all ours. The most adequate response lies in Mephistopheles’s words of praise for the Chorus of Sylphs and Gnomes “C’est bien, jeunes esprits, je suis content de vous”, or perhaps a little later in when the students give a rousing version of “Gaudeamus Igitur”.

Given the current international situation, the final Ride to the Abyss and ensuing Pandemonium of the descent into Hell for once seemed less a piece of nineteenth-century hokum, more terrifyingly real and prescient. By a rather horrible coincidence, Orchestre de Paris played the Symphonie fantastique in the Royal Albert Hall on the night of 9/11. Let us hope that this performance is not a prelude to something even worse.

Inevitably, given the gigantic scale and complexity of Berlioz’s version of Faust (the miniature score runs to over 430 pages), some things came off better than others; what was not in doubt was the sheer conviction. A special word for the LSO’s playing, which in the 60s and 70s was pretty much sans pareil. In the interim it has not been ever thus, whatever the publicists and record companies would have us believe. However, it is once again somewhere near its all-time peak with a corporate level of playing that knocks spots of some other equally famous orchestras currently living off past reputations – compare the wind and brass to the Vienna Philharmonic on its recent London appearances and, frankly, there is not much comparison. To hear Christine Pendrill’s cor anglais playing in the ’Romance’, Andrew Marriner’s clarinet throughout or the virtuoso horn section playing in the recitative heralding the Ride to the Abyss to demonstrate the LSO’s remarkable mix of strongly individual playing subsumed into an excellent overall blend where necessary. In Berlioz this combination of solo brilliance and corporate discipline pays real dividends.

If the LSO Chorus and the soloists were a little more variable, they were certainly never unacceptable. Throughout, the tenors and basses sang with consistent verve, relish and panache; initially the sopranos seemed a little less secure but improved as and made suitably ethereal sounds in Marguerite’s apotheosis at the close of the work with its 4-harp accompaniment. The climax of the Ride and the Pandemonium that follows (for which Berlioz invented a language curiously akin to Basque) were sung flat out – simply tremendous and enough to give one a coronary infarct.

Of the soloists, Stuart Neill’s Faust made slightly heavy weather of the pastoral opening, “the passing Winter has given way to Spring” – life outside the hall imitating Art with soaring temperatures more characteristic of London in mid-May – and sung rather too loudly with less than idiomatic French; in his Part 3 Duet with Marguerite, his ringing heavyweight tenor really came into its own. Petra Lang sang the King of Thule’s song most affectingly and thereafter gave us some truly great singing in the Romance; quite simply, this was breathtakingly good, the audience rightly holding its collective breath. Alastair Miles made a star-quality Mephistopheles singing throughout with real malevolence and charisma. In this case one’s sympathies were all with the Devil, even if this Devil may not have all the best tunes. Jonathan Lemalu, fresh from his triumphs at the Wigmore Hall and Edinburgh Festival, made a characterful cameo appearance singing with a smile in the voice and impeccable comic timing in the Song of the Rat, only to be immediately upstaged by Mephistopheles’s Song of the Flea.

At the end though one has to come back to Colin Davis as animator and chief inspirer of these vast forces. In this music he too is sans pareil. Through a lifetime of conducting this repertoire, his quicksilver instincts regarding tempo and orchestral texture now seem more or less infallible in Berlioz, whether in the flamboyant flourish on the strings when Faust and Mephistopheles disappear into thin air or in teasing out interior detail in the Dance of the Sylphs. Baudelaire’s poem “Correspondences” came to mind, the fascination as to how other Berlioz works come into focus – a harmonic progression from Nuits d’ete here or a reminiscence of a viola line from Romeo and Juliet there. As with all really great performances, such very minor imprecisions as there were seemed only to underline the essential rightness of the whole.

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