Brilliantly Calibrated Symphonie Fantastique with a Touch of Authenticity

14/08/2015

eif-2015-115

Edinburgh International Festival 2015 (7) – Berlioz: Michael Spyres (tenor), Laurent Naouri (bass), Peter Eyre (narrator), National Youth Choir of Scotland (NYCOS), Orchestre Révolutionaire et Romantique / John Eliot Gardiner (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 13.8.2015 (SRT)

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique
Lélio ou Le Retour à la Vie

There’s authenticity, and then there’s authenticity. When the search for authenticity results in the appearance of long-vanished brass instruments and moving the players in the middle of a performance, you know you’re in for something a bit special. While we more often associate him with earlier music, John Eliot Gardiner has a healthy association with Berlioz, and that shone through in a stunning performance of Berlioz’s most popular work, together with its sequel. Gardiner’s authenticity doesn’t just mean using early nineteenth-century instruments, but it also means rethinking the very shape of the orchestra on stage: cellos and basses were plonked slightly awkwardly in a middle corner, while brass were arranged behind them, and violins and violas stood around them in the Symphonie. If it looked odd then it seemed to work, the lower instruments present but not overwhelming, and with a rather remarkable presence to the first violins. He even moved the four harps to the centre in front of the conductor’s podium for the Ball scene (and then moved them back to the sides once it had finished).

The instruments themselves had a pretty unique colour that I’ve never heard in a live performance of this symphony before. The winds sounded all the more plangent in their interruptions to the Reverie, like cries of pain, while the presence of ophicleide and serpent lent an eerie earthiness to the brass sound, most especially in the Dies Irae passages. The strings, too, were that bit more anguished in their sound, but capable of sweeping lyricism too, both in the long line of the idée fixe and the lilt of the Ball. The only misfire, and a serious one, was the fact that the fifth movement bells were played from a recording. What’s the point in searching out forgotten instruments if you’re going to use a recording for the bells?!

Importantly, though, Gardiner didn’t use this set-up as an academic illustration, but he used it to power a supercharged reading that really blew me away. Everything was brilliantly calibrated, the carefully coordinated balance allowing the unusual colours to leap skyward, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard the piece’s drama come alive with such vigour. The first movement dissolved into barely controllable passion, while the March to the Scaffold revelled in its sense of the macabre, and the Witch’s Sabbath was not only marvellously structural but also marvellously exciting.

Berlioz intended Lélio as a companion piece to the Symphonie Fantastique but it never really caught on. I was looking forward to hearing it in the flesh tonight, but it’s easy to see why it has never proved popular and, while tonight argued a good case for it; it didn’t leave me longing to hear it again. For one thing, it’s an utterly impractical phantasmagoria, with a narrator speaking the lines of The Artist who has been put to death in the Symphonie (evidently unsuccessfully), addressing different aspects of his creativity and finally settling on Shakespeare as the source of his inspiration. The monologues provide a barely lucid link between eclectically different scenes for singers and orchestra, but it’s like turning a kaleidoscope, with each section radically different from the one that preceded it. That, of course, was Berlioz’s intention, but it never really works and, for once, the composer’s innate sense of drama seems to have deserted him. The verdict of the years seems pretty justified.

Another problem is that it’s pretty much impossible to perform the piece as Berlioz intended. His plan was to have all the musicians hidden behind a curtain (!) with the narrator in front, so that the music sounds hidden and indistinct until the final fantasia on The Tempest when the curtain opens and reveals the players and singers. Thankfully, Gardiner’s search for authenticity didn’t go that far, and he did his best to inject some non-musical drama where he could. The Chorus of Brigands, for example, featured Laurent Naouri complete with cocked hat and pistol, and the men of NYCOS threw themselves into their performance with winning abandon that was carried by their infectious enthusiasm. Each movement received a completely distinctive musical treatment without a hint of one-size-fits-all; ominous in the Chorus of Shades, wistful in the Hymn and utterly beguiling in the Aeolian Harp. Naouri acted his part gamely but was disappointingly thin of voice, though Michael Spyres, conversely, was utterly inside his music, managing the stratospheric top notes like a true haute-contre. The singers of NYCOS were typically excellent, too, singing in impeccable French and really giving themselves to the mood of each movement, culminating in a vigorously fresh Tempest scene.

Lélio remains an interesting, daft-as-a-brush oddity, but it’s for things like this that festivals exist. Nevertheless, it’s the knockout Symphonie Fantastique for which I will remember this concert, with its thrilling sound picture and utterly compelling sense of theatre. A symphony that’s truly dramatic? I suspect that Berlioz himself would have approved.

Simon Thompson

The 2015 Edinburgh International Festival runs until Monday 31st August at venues across the city. For full details go to www.eif.co.uk.

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