Sir John Eliot Gardiner Brings Berlioz’s Macabre and Magnificent Thrills to Carnegie Hall

18/10/2018

United StatesUnited States Berlioz: Michael Spyres (tenor), Ashley Riches (bass-baritone), Simon Callow (narrator), National Youth Choir of Scotland, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique / Sir John Eliot Gardiner (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York, 15.10.2018. (RP)

Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
(c) Stephanie Berger.

BerliozSymphonie fantastique Op.4, lio, ou Le retour à la vie Op.14b

This was an extraordinary concert by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Gardiner has long championed the works of Berlioz and for this concert recreated the 1832 performance of his Symphonie fantastique followed by its ‘conclusion and complement’, Lélio, ou Le retour à la vie. Berlioz’s command that the two works be performed together is routinely ignored, but it’s a fantastic, almost hallucinatory experience full of music thrills.

Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique is Gardiner’s handpicked ensemble that has blazed new paths and challenged preconceived notions as to how the music of the early Romantics, especially Beethoven and Berlioz, should sound. It’s not been without controversy. Beauty isn’t the goal as much as giving free rein to the power and emotion of the music. On instruments of the period, everything is mellower, at times earthier. The brass instruments do not blaze as brilliantly, but their burnished warmth is part of a more homogenous, alluringly sinewy musical texture.

Symphonie fantastique was a whirl of astonishing sounds. The first movement was remarkable for its buoyancy and the incisive string playing. For the second, four harps were carried on stage and placed at its very edge facing Gardiner. (Berlioz wrote in his memoirs of the challenges in having the symphony performed due to a lack of capable harpists.) The solo cornet stood for his solos. The third movement was remarkable for its lightness and delicacy, so soft at time that you could hear the chairs creaking in the hall, and the fleet pizzicato passages in the strings.

‘The March to the Scaffold’ was dominated by the playing of the brass with the trombones and tubas practically blowing raspberries, sinister and grotesque. In the finale, the woodwind playing was riotous and comical. Instead of orchestral chimes, Gardiner used tapes of actual church bells tolling the death knell that led to a dizzying, kaleidoscopic climax.

Berlioz figured out multimedia long before it became a buzz word, at least in the musical sense. In addition to full orchestra and chorus, in lio there are songs set for tenor and harp or piano accompaniment, a rousing chorus for baritone and male chorus, duo pianists, harp solo and a narrator. An antique grand piano with a rich wood veneer dominated the stage, drawing the curious to inspect it once it was rolled out.

British actor Simon Callow was the narrator, groggily aroused from his opium-induced reveries and nightmares. He was an avuncular presence musing on the visions that he had seen and engaging with Gardiner and the chorus in friendly banter. Tenor Michael Spyres sang so beautifully, it made you wish that he would go on forever. It is hard to imagine lovelier sounds than his voice accompanied by harp in ‘Chant de bonheur’ in which he sang ecstatically of love.

The song was followed by more ethereal harp playing and captivating clarinet solos before the combined forces of orchestra and choir launched into the spectacular finale based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest for chorus and orchestra. This is where the duo pianists are called upon to play. (lio was the first appearance of the piano as an orchestral instrument.) It is Berlioz at his brilliant best and musical fodder for Gardiner and his orchestra. Cymbals crashed, the brass dazzled with their virtuosity and piano arpeggios filled the air. It ends as quietly as it began however, with the idée fixe theme recalling the obsessive love that links lio to the Symphonie fantastique.

Along the way bass-baritone Ashley Riches had led the men of the National Youth Choir of Scotland in a rousing pirate song. Gardiner has partnered with the chorus previously, and it is obvious why. It is one of the most exciting vocal ensembles that I have ever heard. Their sound was compact, focused and pliant, at times as raw and gutsy as the lower brass in the orchestra. You had the sense that Gardiner told them to jump and they interpreted the command as take flight and soar.

As the young singers basked in the applause at the end of the concert, the flag of St. Andrew was unfurled in the rear of the house. I am quite fond of Scotch whiskey and even enjoy haggis, but this might be the country’s finest export to hit these shores.

Rick Perdian

Comments

Leave a Reply

Recent Reviews

Season Previews

__________________________________
  • UPDATED ONLINE NEWS! IMPACT OF CORONAVIRUS (COVID-19) PANDEMIC __________________________________
  • NEW! English Music Festival’s 2020 online series of concerts and talks __________________________________
  • NEW! Glyndebourne 2020 cancelled and looking to the future __________________________________
  • NEW! Opera Philadelphia announces Digital Festival O __________________________________
  • NEW! The Singapore Symphony in 2020-2021 __________________________________
  • NEW! Musikfest Berlin 2020 __________________________________
  • NEW! Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den Linden 2020-2021 __________________________________
  • NEW! 2020-2021 at Dresden’s Semperoper __________________________________
  • NEW! Zurich Opera in 2020-2021 __________________________________
  • NEW! London’s Southbank Centre in 2020-2021 __________________________________
  • NEW! The Met: Live in HD in 2020-2021 __________________________________
  • NEW! 2020-2021 at London’s Barbican __________________________________
  • NEW! Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2020-2021 __________________________________
  • NEW! Carnegie Hall’s 2020-2021 season __________________________________
  • NEW! London’s Wigmore Hall in 2020-2021 __________________________________
  • Subscribe to Free Review Summary Newsletter

    Search S&H

    News and Featured Articles

    __________________________________
  • NEW! Educating Rita, says who? __________________________________
  • UPDATED! 2020 Salzburg Festival – 1 to 30 August __________________________________
  • NEW! Did we really need Vera Lynn during the war – and when will we all meet again? __________________________________
  • NEW! 2020 Three Choirs Festival – postponed __________________________________
  • UPDATED ONLINE NEWS! IMPACT OF CORONAVIRUS (COVID-19) PANDEMIC __________________________________
  • NEW! ACCOMPANIST OR PARTNER? PIANIST SUSIE ALLAN IN CONVERSATION WITH JOHN QUINN __________________________________
  • NEW! Need to escape reality? Enter into the magical world of composer David Hertzberg __________________________________
  • NEW! BTHVN2020 – Beethoven anniversary goes into overtime __________________________________
  • SOME GOOD NEWS! Extraordinary generosity of the Longborough Festival Opera audience __________________________________
  • Remembering Margaret Rutherford: murder on and off screen __________________________________
  • Remembering George London’s life and legacy on the 100th anniversary of his birth __________________________________
  • PIANIST LOUIS LORTIE IN CONVERSATION WITH GEOFFREY NEWMAN __________________________________
  • PIANIST JONATHAN BISS IN CONVERSATION WITH CHRISTOPHER SALLON __________________________________
  • A Q&A WITH SARDINIAN TENOR PIERO PRETTI __________________________________
  • Archives by Week

    Archives by Month