Two Composers of Maverick Genius Featured in a Stimulating Evening in Birmingham

07/03/2015

 Berlioz, Janáček. Luba Orgonášová (soprano); Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano); John Daszak (tenor); Clive Bayley (bass); Thomas Trotter (organ); CBSO Chorus; City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 5.3.2015 (JQ)

BerliozLe carnaval romain, overture, Op. 9
Royal Hunt and Storm from Les Troyens
Mort de Cléopâtre
JanáčekMša glagolskaja (Glagolitic Mass) JW III/9

It was a very good idea to pair in this programme the music of two composers of maverick genius. The programming skill went further in that the three Berlioz works were not, I suspect, selected at random. The well-known excerpt from Les Troyens and the much less familiar cantata, La Mort de Cléopâtre brought into focus Berlioz’s abiding interest in the world of antiquity. Furthermore, unless my ears deceived me, the cantata includes a melody which Berlioz would recycle into his opera Benvenuto Cellini and, subsequently use as the memorable cor anglais theme heard near the start of Le carnaval romain.

 The performance of the overture began with a flourish, Gardner spinning round and launching into the music seconds after mounting the podium and taking his bow. To be honest, I thought that was a rather unnecessarily theatrical gesture. Thus launched, the performance was a good one. Jane Marshall played the cor anglais solo eloquently and the the saltarello sections had brilliance. This dashing reading made a flamboyant start to the evening.

 At the very start of the Royal Hunt and Storm it seemed to me, for some reason that I couldn’t quite pin down, that the sultry Arcadian atmosphere wasn’t conveyed quite as atmospherically as I’d have liked. However, the offstage echoing horns soon compensated. In the storm itself Gardner whipped up quite a tempest. He had brass instruments placed at various places high up in the arena and these made an impact. So, too, did the contribution of the chorus. Gardner took advantage of the presence of the CBSO Chorus to include the wordless choral parts heard at the height of the storm in the opera but only rarely feasible in concert performances. The quiet ending, with the solo horn onstage this time, was very nicely managed.

 Sarah Connolly then joined the orchestra for the cantata La Mort de Cléopâtre. This was the piece that Berlioz submitted in 1829 as his third attempt to win the coveted Prix de Rome. The judges were renowned for their collective conservatism and so, since Berlioz didn’t trouble to dilute his adventurous style, the entry was unsuccessful. (The following year Berlioz submitted a somewhat more compliant composition and finally won the prize with the cantata La Mort de Sardanaple.) La Mort de Cléopâtre may not be top-drawer Berlioz but it’s well worth hearing and, my goodness, the music made a strong impression in this performance. The benefits of having a soloist and conductor who are highly experienced in the opera house were plain to hear. Sarah Connolly gave a gripping and completely convincing portrayal of the shamed, tragic queen, dishonoured and so doomed to die by her own hand. Her singing was intense and highly dramatic yet neither the sense of line nor her lustrous tone were ever sacrificed on the altar of drama. She was magnificent in the central Méditation (‘Grands Pharons, nobles Lagides’) and the way in which she almost whispered the queen’s last phrases was utterly compelling. Her performance was a riveting piece of musical acting. Edward Gardner matched her achievement, bringing out the highly original sonorities of Berlioz’s score and supporting his singer at all times. The very end, where bare-textured strings illustrate Cléopâtre’s death itself, was arresting. The astonishing originality of a passage such as that – and many others in the score – must have had the Prix de Rome judges calling for the smelling salts.

 Is there a more colourful and physically exciting setting of the Mass than the one by Janáček? As Gavin Plumley reminded us in his programme note, Janáček was no conventional religious believer. Yet in his Mša glagolskaja he produced a setting of the Mass which is full of fervour and which responds to the words of the Ordinary of the Mass in a highly original way. The setting was prompted by a conversation with the Archbishop of Olomouc, though it took several more years before Janáček began work. The Archbishop had suggested a setting not in the usual Latin but in Old Church Slavonic and this appealed to the composer’s nationalist streak.

 Edward Gardner has embarked on a series of Janáček recordings with the Bergen Philharmonic – Volume 1 was released a few months ago (review). I note that he’s to perform the Mass in Bergen later this month with two of tonight’s soloists – Luba Orgonášová and Thomas Trotter – taking part and I wonder if a recording will follow. Given, especially, the possibility of a recording I was mildly surprised that Gardner appeared to follow the standard performing version of the piece: I had wondered if he might have given us either Paul Wingfield’s edition, which harks back to Janáček’s original score, or even the subsequent Critical Edition by a Czech scholar, Jiří Zahrádka which has taken Wingfield’s work even further, it seems. I suppose that even if Gardner were attracted to either of these editions there are two practical considerations: the sourcing of performing materials and the artists learning a different version for a one-off performance.

 As it was, Gardner was pretty persuasive in the familiar version of the score. Janáček’s pungent wind and brass writing registered extremely well – and there was a thrilling contribution from timpanist Matthew Perry – while the rhythms were crisply articulated throughout the performance. All the dramatic and exciting passages made an impact but the delicate side of this vibrant and colourful score was put across with equal success. All departments of the CBSO, with guest leader Charles Mutter deputising for an indisposed Laurence Jackson, responded as keenly to Gardner’s direction as they had done in the Berlioz items.

 A strong solo quartet had been assembled. It’s as well we’d had the chance to admire Sarah Connolly in Berlioz for Janáček confines the alto soloist to a fairly small contribution during what is in the Latin usage the Benedictus and a slightly fuller part in the Agnus Dei. Predictably, Miss Connolly was excellent in these pages. The bass has a bit more to do and Clive Bayley was firm of tone and projected strongly. The main solo parts are for the soprano and tenor.  Luba Orgonášová has the right timbre and vocal presence for this music and she impressed me. So did John Daszak who was not daunted by Janáček’s testing tessitura – Daszak’s profession of faith in the holy and apostolic church towards the end of the Creed was the thrilling moment that it should be.

 There is a fifth soloist in this work: the organist. Thomas Trotter gave a tremendous display, coming into his own completely in the wild organ solo which is the penultimate movement.  It was very exciting to hear that solo on the Kleist organ of Symphony Hall and, in a commanding and virtuoso performance, Trotter drew a wide range of sounds and contrasts from the mighty instrument.

 There probably isn’t a British choir that’s more familiar with this work than the CBSO Chorus – I think they first performed it well over thirty years ago. Their familiarity certainly showed here. Expertly prepared by Julian Wilkins, the choir sang with the tremendous assurance, flexibility, agility and depth of tone that we’ve long associated with this excellent choir.

 This was a fine performance of Janáček’s extraordinary score, which remains extraordinary no matter how often one hears it. It set the seal on a stimulating evening in Symphony Hall.

 

John Quinn

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