Two Revolutionaries, Beethoven And Berlioz, Look to the Future

bbc proms logo








United KingdomUnited Kingdom   PROM 33:Beethoven, Berlioz: Orchestra Revolutionnaire et Romantique / Sir John Eliot Gardiner (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 9.8.2015. (GD) 

Beethoven  Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
Berlioz Symphonie fantastique

No other composition in Western classical music is overlaid with the same degree of  accreted  interpretative and literary rhetoric as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony . There is nothing from Beethoven, apart from conjectural, anecdotal material, to suggest that he intended it as anything other than his Fifth Symphony in C minor, and  this is the way Gardiner viewed the symphony tonight eschewing all the Romantic distorted humanist rhetoric of ‘Fate knocking on the door’; of  the ‘destiny’ of mankind, from ‘darkness to light’ r hetoric that even a Beethoven contemporary  like  Hegel found worn out and obsolete. It was nice programming  to couple these two symphonies. Berlioz was an ardent admirer of Beethoven, both works speak of revolution and look to the future.

With one powerful downbeat Gardiner played the famous four bar opening as it is written – ‘Allegro con brio’- with no ponderous sep a ration of each measure, and no protracted fermatas. I particularly liked the way in which Gardiner reminded us that the  scansion of the four-bar-rhythm pervades the whole movement, even the plaintive oboe cadenza before the movement s dramatic coda. T he bassoon’s contribution to the opening theme at the beginning of the recapitulation, once thought to sound inappropriately comic,  took on a wholly symphonic dimension. Beethoven couldn’t have made it clearer that he wanted the second movement ‘Andante’ to be played with movement, ‘con moto’. But this has not prevented generations of esteemed conductors taking the movement more as ‘molto adagio’ a nd tonight Gardiner demonstrated how fresh and ambient the opening variation theme, on violas and celli, sound when played as written – a nd for once the C major tutti statements of the theme didn’t sound like one of Wotan’s baleful pronouncements. The Allegro Scherzo’s triumphant opening had extra grainy reson an ce with those grainy natural horns, and the C major fugato trio initiated in the basses, lost none of its thrust  through being played with reduced strings; if anything, it sounded more rhythmically accurate thereby. I particularly admired the way in which Gardiner clearly articulated the pp bass recitative figure, often smudged, in the long pp passage with its throbbing drum beat, leading to the C major blaze of the finale with resplendent brass.  Gardiner also had the good sense here to refrain from any kind of crescendo before Beethoven asks for it – eight bars before the finale proper. Gardiner observed both the Finale’s repeat, and that of the  Scherzo which is rarely observed. The Finale itself was notable for its orchestral clarity, a clarity and lucidity so often missing  in this rather heavily scored movement. Also, and as with Toscanini, there was a convincing control of tempo and rhythm, the music never running away with itself, or sagging, as in many performances heard in concert and on record. The coda itself with its repeated chords and affirmation of C major, never sounded too long, sometimes degenerating into curtain – lowering chords with Gardiner carefully ensuring that the structural contour of the coda cohered as an  essential part of the pattern of the whole symphony. Occasionally I would have welcomed more dramatic edge and intensity as in the symphonic build-up to the coda where Gardiner introduced some legato  phrasing which I don’t remember him deploying in his first recording of the symphony; it some how held the drama back,  as it were. Also there were some woodwind fluffs in the andante – bu t these reservations in no way detracted from the splendour of the performance as a whole. As with standard period practice Gardiner deployed a welcomed minimum of vibrato which allowed for more freshness and clarity in the strings. This clarity was enhanced by the use of antiphonal violins, the players here standing throughout the concert. Paradoxically, as tonight’s rendition proved, this most played of great warhorse classics, never sounds predictable or over-played. It is endlessly open to the best old and new interpretive styles.

One reason why Berlioz gave the Symphonie Fantastique a kind of narrative programme was to get the piece performed – to make a public ‘splash’ as one commentator put it. Indeed its 1830 premiere (under Habeneck’s direction) it achieved quite a success and even won the Prix de Rome. It was undoubtedly one of his most popular works, in contrast to the composer’s later failures, and remains so today. Undoubtedly at the time of writing the symphony Berlioz’s obsession with the actress Harriet Smithson had something to do with the work’s emotional charge, with its profane  programme of opium induced dreams of unrequited love and violent death. But I think it is a mistake to read too much into this. Conductors over the years have certainly exploited these emotional overtones and subjected the work to all manner of interpretive excess. But if one takes the trouble to consult the score and the composer’s tempo instructions, it will be found that Berlioz was attempting a kind of post-Beethoven symphonic experiment. Remember Beethoven’s death occurred only two years before the work’s premiere. The third movement ‘Scene aux Champs’ is marked adagio and many conductors, including Berlioz specialist like Colin Davis, take this movement at an extremely slow and ponderous tempo. But  then we read that Berlioz’s actual tempo marking is crochet = 84, a quite flowing tempo, measured, but with movement. Gardiner played most of the work with plenty of movement in an admirably sustained manner. Whereas  conductors like Charles Munch, for example,( another Berlioz ‘specialist’) whip up the fourth movement ‘Marche au Supplice’  to a frantically fast tempo, arousing a kind of shallow excitement, Gardiner observed the composer’s explicit marking ‘Allegretto non troppo’, here implying a sustained and rather macabre death march. Here Gardiner emphasised the  sheer originality (for the time) of the work’s orchestral textures, with wonderfully growling bass trombones and gurgling contra-bassoons, not to mention ophicleides and a serpent,  but without ever approaching a ‘Grande Guignol’ soundscape. Similarly the last movement  ‘Witches Sabbath’was sustained marvellously, rhythmically and dynamically, sounding more sinister than is usual’ The gloomy intonation of the Dies Irae was compellingly matched ( in tempo and texture) with the contrapuntal ‘Ronde du Sabbat’ with   impressively ominous sound of off stage recorded bells. The second movement ‘un bal, valse’ was articulated with grace and elegance. Gardiner made this a kind of set piece, having the harps brought down and placed around the conductor. I didn’t really see the point of this, and it  was intrusive, holding up the pace of the ongoing performance. Also the cornets were emphasised, which came off here, but would become tiresome on repeated hearing. There was much to admire in the ‘scene aux champs’, not least the carefully gradated timpani parts at the end of the movement, as a prefiguration of the ‘Marche au Supplice’. But occasionally Gardiner’s slow tempo produced a kind of inhibited and static quality. And the Beethovenian double bass recitatives at the movements climax, although well articulated, lacked that last degree of tension and drama vividly heard with an old Berlioz champion like Beecham. This quality of intensity, flare and drama was also missing in the coda of the first movement ‘Reveries’ , with peculiarly reticent timpani.

But overall there was so much to admire here not least the extra degree of phantasmagoria Gardiner found in the last two movements. The frenzied coda, with full brass, screeching woodwind and crunching bass drum thwacks (admired so much by Mahler) brought a frenzied response from the Prommers with much shouting and whistling. They continued to stamp and shout for an encore. At one point Gardiner made as if to play an encore, mounting the rostrum with baton in hand, but no, he declined, probably feeling a tad tired on such a hot August evening. And what encore would sound anything but an anti-climax? Again there was much coughing from the arena and added distractions from the boxes with crunching of crisps, giggling and all manner of distracting noises from glasses and bottles.

Geoff Diggines

Leave a Comment