OAE/Mark Elder – Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette

Roméo et Juliette – Dramatic Symphony, Op.17 [Sung in French with English surtitles]

Patricia Bardon (mezzo-soprano), John Mark Ainsley (tenor) & Orlin Anastassov (bass)

Schola Cantorum & BBC Symphony Chorus

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Sir Mark Elder

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 18 February, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

No, it’s not an opera, madam. The woman behind me who confused Berlioz’s symphonie dramatique with Gounod’s stage-work may well have been puzzled by Roméo et Juliette, for it bears no more relation to Shakespeare’s dramatic lines than Mahler’s Eighth does to Goethe’s Faust. As David Cairns remarks in a typically insightful programme note, with Berlioz’s symphony “the balance between the narrative and the symphonic is precisely calculated”. Not for the first time, then, we can see the composer as a Janus figure looking simultaneously back to Beethoven, who first ‘dramatised’ the symphony, and forward to Mahler, who would loosen its conventional strings.

Another name, Tchaikovsky, springs so irresistibly to mind during the romantic ‘Scène d’amour’ that one can scarcely believe that Berlioz’s score was completed before the Russian composer was even born. Indeed, the music is ravishing throughout its 100-minute duration, and the only rational reason for its comparative neglect must be its bizarre structure. On paper Roméo et Juliette is a formal mess – the symphonic equivalent of the camel as a horse designed by a committee – yet in a performance as powerful as this by Sir Mark Elder and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment it is never a moment overlong, and not a note of it is superfluous.

Sir Mark Elder. Photograph: Clive Barda/ArenapalElder certainly keeps a busy platform: his performance incorporated more comings and goings than a masked ball. Intentionally or otherwise, he emphasised the work’s episodic nature by pausing between sections, and he even treated himself to a seat by the podium for a stretch and a chat during the peregrinations of instrumentalists and chorus, or while singers and quadruple harps chopped and changed within their shared space. It was a disconcerting approach to adopt during a symphonic work, but it did mean (as Elder no doubt intended) that every movement stood out as a jewel in its own right.

Put simply, Roméo et Juliette is a series of symphonic impressions based on episodes from Shakespeare’s play, framed by a pair of cantatas – one at the outset during which the contralto and small choir (joined briefly by a tenor) paraphrase Shakespeare’s tale and one at the end where Friar Laurence (solo bass) and the Montagues and Capulets (large chorus) reflect upon its human tragedy.

To engage John Mark Ainsley for such a fleeting tenor role may seem an extravagance, but the narration of Mercutio’s Queen Mab story demands a singer of his meticulousness and vocal agility. Patricia Bardon, a late replacement for Sonia Ganassi, sang her low-lying music with power and clarity, but she found little magic in Berlioz’s ravishing depiction of the lovers’ night of joy, ‘Premiers transports que nul n’oublie’ (Unforgettable first rapture), delivering both ardour and tenderness with the same curious detachment. By contrast Orlin Anastassov, a veteran of Sir Colin Davis’s LSO Live recording of this work, sang with an impassioned rawness throughout the final section. The contributions (as Berlioz’s ‘Petit choeur’) of Schola Cantorum were marked by outstanding articulation and graceful ensemble, while the BBC Symphony Chorus characterised the Montagues and Capulets with a vehemence that placed high drama ahead of clear diction.

The score’s opulence was thrown into incisive relief by the earthy panoply of the OAE, its trombones and valve-less horns setting the tone from the outset with some thrilling antiphonal stridency, while flutes tolled like bells and the fast-dying sound of old kettledrums added a frisson with their every beat. Elder capitalised on the forces at his disposal with a reading that alternated between militaristic swagger and rustic beauty. Balances fell naturally into place. If the violins sounded a touch scratchy during the ‘Queen Mab (Scherzo)’, it was a small price to pay for the unexpected loveliness of a lustre-free string sound in this music. This memorable concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3: it’s a broadcast not to be missed.

  • Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 2 p.m. on 26 February 2012
  • Friday 24 February at 9 p.m.: The OAE’s Night Shift – Excerpts from Roméo et Juliette at The Roundhouse, London
  • OAE

  • Southbank Centre

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