Innovation, Majesty and Reflection in Philharmonia Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, Berlioz, ElgarRuxandra Donose (mezzo soprano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Edward Gardner (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 3.4.2014 (CS)   

Wagner: Overture, Rienzi
Berlioz: Le mort de Cléopâtre, scène lyrique
Elgar: Symphony No.2 in Ab major Op.55


The Philharmonia Orchestra under the baton of Edward Gardner found a myriad moods as they charted the stages of European Romanticism from the formal and harmonic innovations of Berlioz’s cantata  Le mort de Cléopâtre (1829), through Wagner’s majestic overture to Rienzi (1840), to Elgar’s summative reflections in his First Symphony of 1908.

Wagner’s overture to Rienzi is a fittingly substantial opener for an opera which depicts the magnificent exploits and demise of the Italian revolutionary and liberator, Cola di Rienzi (1313-54).  Although rarely performed today, and indeed often derided, the opera was in fact Wagner’s first and most popular success during his lifetime, changing his musical fortunes overnight.  From muted beginnings, Gardner increasingly drew more a luxuriant tone from the strings, the woodwind melodies clear and well-defined, before the piercing brightness and bite of the opening trumpet summons burst through, suggesting both the vigour and optimism of a man who has vowed to make Rome a great city once again together with the dangers – war, betrayal, desertion – which may lie ahead.  Driving forward from this initial call-to-arms, Gardner created compelling and consistent impetus.  The contrasting main theme, drawn from Rienzi’s Act 5 prayer, was eloquent and noble, and the blazing percussive colours of the military march with which the overture concludes confirmed the brilliant splendour and sumptuousness of what was Wagner’s only ‘grand’ opera.

Having been runner-up in the 1828 Prix de Rome, Berlioz must have been confident of victory the following year; but he made the crucial error of taking the competition too seriously and his radical resourcefulness led him to compose a work far beyond the experience and imagination of those who would judge it.  Dismissed by the examiners, one of whom admitted that ‘those unearthly chords were completely beyond me’, Berlioz had to wait until the following year for his prize, awarded for the obligingly conventional Sardanapale.

With his penchant for Classical tragedy, it is no surprise that Berlioz was fascinated by the Shakespearean story of Cleopatra’s suicide after the Battle of Actium, as presented in a text by P. A. Vieillard.  Desolate after Marc Antony has died in her arms, the dishonoured queen commits suicide by poison, wracked by despair and defiance as she appeals to the Pharaohs to receive her in death.  No doubt Berlioz’s inspiration was also fired by Harriet Smithson’s rendition of Juliet’s reflections in the tomb, in a performance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in 1827.

As she prepares for life after death, Cleopatra plunges through her memories and takes actions to prepare for the after-life.  The vocal writing is extremely dramatic and ignores the distinctions between recitative and aria (to the bemusement of the Prix de Rome jury): in the former, which establish the situation, mezzo soprano Ruxandra Donose encompassed both the queen’s theatricality – expressed in the rapidly changing tempos, wide vocal range and powerful declamatory phrases – and also her tender pathos in the more mysterious, subdued reflections.

In the first aria, the purity of Donose’s voice distilled Cleopatra’s emotions perfectly: as the queen contemplates her beauty and former majesty, the mezzo soprano moved from warm lyricism to extrovert fury and self-righteousness.  The striking harmonies of the Meditation were indeed ‘unearthly’ as Gardner drew sombre colours from the Philharmonia, with the expansive meter and pointedly placed repeating rhythm emphasising the queen’s profound fear of the reception she will receive from the Pharoahs.  Donose’s velvety and sensual lower register was affecting, but with the resurgence of confidence which accompanies Cleopatra’s final moments, her voice gained brightness as the vocal lines rose, before a beautifully shaped diminution as the queen realises that in death she will at last be worthy of Caesar.

Gardner’s crafting of the shifting forms, harmonies and dynamics was excellent;. Meticulously observing Berlioz’s expressive orchestral effects, he was rewarded with an immaculate delivery of them by the players of the Philharmonia.  Cleopatra’s last moments may be melodramatic, even histrionic, but here, as one-by-one the instrumental lines cease until all that remains is a softly descending cello fragment, they touched the heart.

Gardner’s masterful interpretation of Elgar’s Symphony No.1 in Ab revealed why he is such a good conductor of opera.  Although there is no explicit programme, there is much inward drama in this protean work, and Gardner’s acuity and precision in clarifying and communicating the various shifts of emotion and fluctuating states of mind were astounding.  The ‘motto’ theme which binds the work, but which is scarcely explored thematically, was reserved and calm at its first statement, like a processional hymn; Gardner made each re-statement seem like an inevitable punctuation point in the unfolding drama of the symphony.

The conductor expertly controlled the roving melodic and harmonic developments as Elgar pushes the boundaries of conventional sonata form.  This was a spacious reading which allowed for the harmonic diversions and melodic meandering while maintaining tight formal coherence.  Alert to the constant vacillations of tempi, indicated by the composer’s obsessive instructions in the score, Gardner made the transitions between movements seem natural and effortless;. Especially magical was the movement from the restless, scurrying second movement to the tranquil simplicity of the third; they share the same material but presented such different worlds.

The Philharmonia relished the inventiveness of Elgar’s orchestration – the barely perceived return of the motto theme at the end of the first movement, played by only the back desk of each string section; the ghostly muted trombone gestures which close the Adagio – and the virtuosity required of the individual players.  The result was a superb performance which combined nobilimente grandeur with apprehension; elevated dignity with shadowy doubt.  Gardner authoritatively revealed and combined the dramatic with the poetic; he deserved his rich applause.  There can have been few members of the audience who did not find themselves humming the motto tune as their wended homewards.

Claire Seymour

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