Romeo & Juliet

Roméo et Juliette – Dramatic Symphony, Op.17

Katarina Karnéus (mezzo-soprano)
Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (tenor)
John Relyea (bass)

London Symphony Chorus

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 31 July, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Berlioz’s aptly titled ‘dramatic symphony’ is not at all easy to categorise, being a strange mix of cantata and opera alongside the purely symphonic. Neither is it a straightforward work to perform.

One has to report that Ilan Volkov did not deliver a particularly illuminating reading from the interpretative point of view, though his did marshal his forces, on the whole, with some efficiency. He seemed most at home in the purely orchestral sections.

The instrumental introduction revealed a deficiency that repeatedly manifested itself, which was a lack of precision and pointed articulation. The fugal passage at the start needed more definition and attack, though the subsequent brass proclamations were noble and sonorous enough.

In the Prologue – where Berlioz and his librettist Emile Deschamps present and outline the characters and dramatic situations – the semi-chorus was well sung, even if there were some hesitant entries. Katarina Karnéus’s warm tone was ideal for the ‘Strophes’. She was, unfortunately, one bar out at one place in the second verse, but this was a momentary distraction and more than compensated for by some beautiful cello playing. Jean-Paul Fouchécourt delivered a mercurial ‘Mab’ scherzetto, with some pert flute and piccolo accompaniment. One regretted that the tenor solo’s contribution is so brief in this work, as Fouchécourt’s tone and delivery ensured that this short section was a highlight.

At the start of the symphonic music, Romeo’s desolation was, to a degree, suggested, though the dynamic level here – and at other comparable instances – was too high for the given ppp. The subsequent build-up to the ball music was handled effectively, and the dance music itself certainly boisterous, if lacking an essential ‘spring’ in the dotted rhythms.

The departing revellers (male chorus) were well placed in the gallery, and the consequent ‘love scene’ had ardour – not least due to the impassioned playing of the violas and cellos (how hard the latter have to work in this symphony!) – and some poignant woodwind contributions.

The ‘Queen Mab’ scherzo for orchestra alone was, disappointingly, far too earthbound. In was, in fact, simply too slow for the ‘prestissimo’ marking, and the staccato scurrying too heavy for the character of the music.

However, Juliet’s Funeral Cortege, with its strange sonorities and choral contribution alternating between a lament and wordless vocalising was affectingly performed, as was the following section where Berlioz depicts, graphically and literally, the events when Romeo arrives at the Capulet tomb. There was some fine playing here, and the dramatic thrust of the ‘action’, via Berlioz’s ingenious orchestration, left nothing to the imagination.

In the finale, John Relyea made a most imposing and distinctive contribution. He was at ease in both the heights and depths of the wide-ranging vocal line, and delivered admonitions and oaths with appropriate authority.

The threads of the musical argument were drawn together with conviction, though one couldn’t altogether avoid reflecting that Berlioz is at his least convincing when he is trying to be ‘conventional’; and this finale is the most conventional part of an otherwise unique structure and conception.

So this was a performance which conveyed the essence of Berlioz’s symphony, though with a more perceptive approach from the podium – and perhaps more rehearsal time? – this could have been a still more gripping realisation of Berlioz’s remarkable score.

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