Morlot’s Vivid Symphonie fantastique Opens Two Weeks of Berlioz

07/11/2017

Berlioz: Ian Bostridge (tenor), Seattle Symphony Orchestra / Ludovic Morlot (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 4.11.2017. (ZC)

BerliozLes nuits d’été, Op.7; Symphonie fantastique, Op.14

Among the many treasures of the Seattle Symphony’s 2017-2018 season is the focus on Hector Berlioz, a favorite of Ludovic Morlot in his time as music director.  In previous seasons Morlot conducted La damnation de Faust and Roméo et Juliette—both memorable testaments to Morlot’s affinity for the composer.

Symphonie fantastique is rightfully part of the standard concert repertoire. But its prominence in the canon can lead audiences to take it for granted. It is too easy to forget that in 1830, when it had its premiere, the leading composers of the day were Chopin and Mendelssohn. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony had been unveiled only six years before. Brahms would not see the debut of his first symphony until 1876—46 years later. With a five-movement structure, a recurring fixed idea, radical harmonics, and novel orchestration, Berlioz’s opus is unlike anything that had been composed or heard up to that point.

The vast symphony has a strange, semi-autobiographical program. The composer had fallen madly in love with the actress Harriet Smithson, who would eventually become his wife. But before their romance began, Berlioz turned his unrequited love into this obsessive work. Each of the five movements is linked by recurring motifs and musical ideas, yet each also stands alone as a fixed segment in Berlioz’s overall narrative. In fact, the composer left behind detailed descriptions of each movement to make clear its place in the greater arc.

In the right hands, Symphonie fantastique can sound as radical today as it did in 1830. Morlot highlighted the unusual elements through an interpretation both unsentimental and electrifying. In the fourth movement, in which the symphony’s protagonist is escorted to the scaffold in a hallucinatory state, Morlot punctuated each macabre orchestral detail. Pauses heightened the movement’s underlying tension—such as when the protagonist is finally executed—marked by a strangely unsettling effect from the strings.

The third movement opens with a duet between an offstage oboe and an onstage English horn to set a pastoral scene. The effect can come across as trite or cute if a conductor is overly attached to the programmatic themes rather than the musical effects. But Morlot trusted Berlioz’s orchestrations, and as elsewhere, the conductor rightly emphasized drawing out orchestral effects rather than sentiment. As a result, the exchange between the English horn and oboe was a drama on its own, and helped to create the most satisfying “Scene aux champs” I have heard. Finally, the last movement exemplified the greatness of the Morlot years in Seattle—vivid, detailed, and scrupulously shaped. This was a performance that will live on in the memory of Seattle Symphony fans for years to come, and is one of the most effective of Morlot’s time as music director.

An early Berlioz song cycle, Les nuits d’été is one of the composer’s most ingratiating works. Usually sung by a soprano or mezzo-soprano, some male singers have adapted and folded the cycle into their repertoire. Ian Bostridge, a British tenor with a penchant for art songs, would seem to be a perfect match; in 2006 he recorded the work with Colin Davis and the New York Philharmonic. That performance and recording showed Bostridge as an introspective interpreter, with true vulnerability. With the Seattle Symphony, sadly, his versions of the opening and closing songs — “Villanelle” and “L’île inconnue” — bordered on farce. However, Bostridge excelled in the less buoyant middle songs, where his rich, even voice could be heard and his glancing emotion resonated throughout the hall.

Zach Carstensen

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