A Dramatic and Impressive Symphonie fantastique from Morlot

United StatesUnited States Chabrier, Schumann, and Berlioz: Ludovic Morlot (conductor), Xavier Phillips, cello), Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 13.2.2014 (BJ)

Chabrier: Bourrée fantasque
Schumann: Cello Concerto
Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique


Where great art is concerned, opposite views can often both be right. in his program notes for this concert, Steven Lowe stressed the romanticism of the Fantastic Symphony, and with justice. Yet there is also a strong element of classicism in the work. As scenic evocations go, Berlioz’s third movement, with its often bare and unsupported melody, may well be rated less romantic than the second movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony: it is influenced by the classically pure style of Berlioz’s fellow maverick Gluck, whom he venerated.

It was a prime virtue of Ludovic Morlot’s reading that it succeeded in realizing both disparate characters, the romantic and the classical, with equal conviction. The slow introduction of the first movement emphasized the histrionic, even grotesque, side of Berlioz: sudden stertorous upheavals of texture interacted unpredictably with isolated violin tones of lambent beauty. Not since the “Representation of Chaos” in Haydn’s The Creation, Morlot showed us, had there been a slow introduction so cosmically subversive of musical propriety. And those accompanying thuds under the idée fixe in the Allegro! They were a million miles away from the Alberti basses beloved of earlier generations of composers.

All these revolutionary touches were vividly realized. And on the other hand the cool elegance of the third movement’s “Country Scene” was no less beautifully etched, at a tempo that kept the music flowing, with finely focused string lines and some eloquent oboe and english horn solos. What a feeling of loneliness, too, was created at the movement’s end, when the english horn no longer brought an answer from an offstage woodwind colleague, but only a threatening gust of rolls from the timpani, also played offstage in this performance! Morlot by the way, stationed the two harps respectively to his left and right in the middle of the stage, which was visually striking if fairly inconsequential in terms of sound.

Such complaints as I have to make are relatively insignificant, though I think the omission of the first movement’s exposition repeat was rash in view of the opprobrium Berlioz leveled at such omissions in his critical writings. Another conductorial choice I regretted was not to use the solo cornet part Berlioz subsequently added to the scoring of the second movement ball scene, for it’s charming, and adds a touch of creamy luxury to the tone of the music on the rare occasions when we are allowed to hear it. There were a couple of slight flaws in the “March to the Scaffold.” The movement scandalized the hidebound critics of the day, who censured Berlioz for having the temerity to “invent new rhythms,” but Morlot turned the slightly off-kilter penultimate note of the “Dies irae” theme into something more conventional and anodyne. And in one passage where Berlioz noted that his trombone parts were intended to produce an effect of “extreme harshness,” I could have done with a bit more of a snarl. (Perhaps surprisingly for so inveterately cultivated an orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic recording conducted by Pierre Monteux captures the roughness of that bloodcurdling moment as well as any performance I have heard.)

Such minor disappointments, however, hardly detracted from the satisfactions provided by this superb performance, which was further enhanced by some mellow solos from guest principal clarinetist Ilya Shretenberg. It would, furthermore, be unjust to leave Xavier Phillips’s performance of the Schumann Cello Concerto unpraised. The work itself may not be one of Schumann’s best, but the French cellist’s richly romantic phrasing, delivered in a tone that combined resonant solidity with an alluring golden sheen, made the most of its virtues.

I found some of the orchestral tuttis in the Schumann performance somewhat short of refinement. The players were more on song in the first piece on the program, Chabrier’s exuberant Bourrée fantasque, which offered a suitably agreeable opening treat for an evening that Berlioz’s Fantastique would end with such convincing dramatic and musical force.

Bernard Jacobson