Sir Mark Elder Conducts Berlioz Roméo et Juliette

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Berlioz, Romeo and Juliet (Roméo et Juliette): Patricia Bardon (mezzo-soprano), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Orlin Anastassov (bass), BBC Symphony Chorus, Schola Cantorum, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Sir Mark Elder     (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 18.2.2012. (JPr)

Apparently every performance of what is described as a ‘mammoth’ work is an ‘event’ and indeed the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment drew a big audience to their concert of this French symphony at the Royal Festival Hall. I am completely mindful of the historical significance of the work and was happy to hear it for the first time but – as performed here – for ‘mammoth’, read ‘almost interminable’. It might have been a lot better had we not been drawn into what was little more than a ‘live’ recording session for the BBC broadcast on 26 February 2012. On entering the hall the audience was informed that – quite rightly – there would be no interval but what I did not expect was so many pauses that totally disconnected this seven-park work.

During the gaps there was so much distracting activity: firstly, the OAE must have been paying for extra harps by the minute because they came on and were later quickly taken off, also a small group of singers performing the almost plainchant Prologue came and stood stage right then went off, later brass players went off and came back and finally all the members of the two choruses (some garishly attired) entered. If thought had been given to the continuity of the performance – rather than to the recorded sound – I doubt whether any of this to-ing and fro-ing was really necessary, or intrinsic, to our enjoyment of the music.

Compounding this was a set of programme notes that were only useful for those with an already detailed knowledge of the music and of little value to a newcomer to the work. It was impossible to tell from the information what we were listening to at any particular time. We do not always expect to know the music we are hearing – or to have done our homework – beforehand, otherwise what is the point of producing a printed programme?

What I did know was that Berlioz was obsessed with Harriet Smithson, whose Ophelia and Juliet enchanted him in Paris in 1827. His Romeo et Juliette is based on the David Garrick version of the play he saw. Its form was a homage to Beethoven’s Choral Symphony and a gift from Paganini of 20,000 francs made it happen with his words ‘Beethoven being dead, only Berlioz remains to make him live again.’ Especially important was that a young Richard Wagner, who attended the première, acknowledged its influence on Tristan und Isolde. He seems to have absorbed so much about the ideals of dramatic music, melodic flexibility and use of the orchestra from it and said Roméo et Juliette made him feel like a schoolboy at Berlioz’s side. It was the Berlioz work he knew best and their second (and last) meeting was at a performance of it in London in 1855. The opening of the second movement is now familiar to us from the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde and Wagner probably acknowledged his debt by sending Berlioz the full score of the opera in 1860 simply inscribed with:

Au grand et cher auteur de
Roméo et Juliette
L’auteur reconnaissant de
Tristan et Isolde.

(To the dear and great author of
Romeo and Juliet
from the grateful author of
Tristan and Isolde)

The chorus basically acts as the narrator; a mezzo-soprano interrupts their story early on to sing a song on the nature of love and then a tenor, accompanied by a small choir, sings his aria describing Queen Mab. The orchestra is left alone to deal with the big dramatic moments, such as the street brawls, the Capulet ball, the pivotal love scene that is the symphony’s longest and most familiar movement, there follows a scherzo for Queen Mab and Juliet’s funeral. The symphony then ends like an oratorio, with a crowd assembled and Friar Laurence’s grand oration with its appeal for peace and reconciliation.

Beethoven is present but so is Mendelssohn, especially in the Queen Mab section of the Prologue and it was given a clear, nimble, hard-driven, account by Sir Mark Elder and the period instruments of the OAE. It sounded all quite dry, though suitable attention was given to the music’s French colours. However to my ears the brass were sorely tested by Berlioz’s demands at times and the timpani enjoyed themselves with so much Brucknerian (or even Messiaenic) fervour that it overwhelmed the orchestra. Overall, until the closing moments the passionate pulse that I believe should be in the music was totally absent.

Both the BBC Symphony Chorus and the Schola Cantorum sounded well-trained and impressive in their limited contributions. I understand that Berlioz intended his mezzo and tenor soloists to emerge from the chorus and given how little they had to do, I am surprised this cannot happen. As good as they were Patricia Bardon (replacing a previously announced Sonia Ganassi) and John Mark Ainsley seemed a sheer extravagance. The Finale’s inspirational appeal for conflicts to cease resonates so much in these troubled times and was authoritatively sung by Orlin Anastassov. He was possibly another unnecessary import and seemed ill at ease on the platform, though I believe he was trying to make out his big moment was more difficult than it actually was.


Jim Pritchard