Proms Chamber Music No.8 (8 September) – “Bully for Berlioz!”

Berlioz (arr.)
La mort d’Orphée – Monologue and Larghetto
Roméo et Juliette – Strophe and Balcony Scene (Scène d’amour)
La Damnation de Faust – Recitative, La Roi de Thule, Will-o-the-Wisp (Menuet des follets) & Romance de Marguerite

Ensemble Carpe Diem

Françoise Masset (soprano)
Catherine Montier (violin)
Antoine Tamestit (viola)
Emmanuelle Bertrand (cello)
Jérôme Bertrand (double bass)
Adeline de Preissac (harp)
Marine Perez (flute)
Jean-Pierre Arnaud (oboe)
Philippe Bréas (horn)

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 8 September, 2003
Venue: Lecture Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

It was a couple of days of Proms curiosities: first, the Vienna Philharmonic sang its collective way through Rossini, courtesy Bobby McFerrin, and then, at this lunchtime chamber concert, there was bargain-basement Berlioz, cut down to an octet (at the most) by the oboist and arranger of the French group Ensemble Carpe Diem, Jean-Pierre Arnaud.

While I may not go as far as an overheard comment that Arnaud is a much better arranger than he is an oboist (his tone is typically nasal, in the French manner), there is no doubt that his skilful filleting of Berlioz’s extraordinary orchestrations are masterpieces of subtlety, and incredibly faithful to Berlioz’s soundworld.They can be easily held alongside Schoenberg’s reduction of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.

The programme filled in some gaps not covered in Berlioz’s bicentenary year by the main Proms season up the road.So we had excerpts from two large works, Roméo et Juliette and La Damnation de Faust prefaced by a taste of one of the works that failed to win Berlioz the Prix de Rome in 1827, La Mort d’Orphée, described as “unplayable’ by the judges”.It also neatly tied into the Greek mythology theme, and was illustrated by Raoul Dufy’s Cortège d’Orphée on the cards advertising the concert (as usual, part of the V & A’s collection).It tells of how Orpheus’s head was ripped from his body by a group of wild women.Nothing of the wildness was betrayed in the excerpts here, indeed the most pertinent sonority was the harp, for Orpheus’s lyre (Berlioz was not a pianist but a guitarist, which may explain why so much of his music seems determinedly non-Germanic and why no piano is needed in these reductions, the harp a perfect alternative), as soprano Françoise Masset took Orhpeus’s part in standing against the wild bacchantes and praying that his lyre-playing would astonish the world.The short Larghetto was of refined mourning.

The Strophe from Roméo et Juliette is pared down in orchestration in the original score, but here further still, yet missing nothing of Berlioz’s summary of the tale (including actually mentioning Shakespeare’s name) as taken by Masset, while most successful was the purely instrumental Scene d’amour which even dispensed with the harp to weave its magic.The Lecture Theatre’s acoustic filled out the body of sound from the seven players (whereas Masset’s voice in the vocal pieces was just too large for the space) and Berlioz’s melodic invention was allowed full reign.

Catherine Montier swapped her violin for a viola for the dark-hued first excerpt from La Damnation of Faust, Marguerite’s first recitative, dreaming of Faust, and then the haunting tale of The King of Thule, before Arnaud introduced the Will-o-the-Wisp episode in accented English (violist Antoine Tamestit had introduced R & J similarly; depriving – so the concert’s presenter Christopher Cook informed us, disappointedly – Cook himself actually joining in, which had been mooted earlier).This pleasing, fleet-footed interlude led to the final item, Marguerite’s Romance, aching at the loss of Faust.

Given that Arnaud is following in a tradition that dates from long before Liszt made a piano arrangement of Symphonie fantastique, it is good to see this art alive and well.Certainly Berlioz’s unique music can withstand it and even if nowadays we no longer need such transcriptions to actually hear the music (the 20th-century’s onslaught of recording media has put paid to that), these arrangements are certainly very pleasurable in their own right.

An unusual, but intriguing end to this year’s Proms Chamber Music, and one worth catching again on its repeat broadcast.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Sunday 14 September at 1 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content