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

18/10/2018

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

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Comments

Leave a Reply

Recent Reviews

MW

Facebook-button-1

Season Previews

__________________________________
  • NEW! Looking Ahead to the 2019 Lucerne Festivals __________________________________
  • NEW! Sándor Végh Memorial Concerts 2019 __________________________________
  • NEW! Bampton Classical Opera Perform Amahl and the Night Visitors in December __________________________________
  • NEW! The Royal Opera House’s Sundays for a Fiver Festival in November __________________________________
  • NEW! Opera Holland Park’s 2019 Season __________________________________
  • NEW! The Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theatre Reopens in December 2018 __________________________________
  • NEW! The Met: Live in HD in 2018/19 __________________________________
  • NEW! The Royal Opera House’s Exciting 2018/19 Cinema Season __________________________________
  • NEW! See Pop-Up Opera’s La Tragédie de Carmen this Autumn __________________________________
  • UPDATED! Zurich Opera in 2018/2019 and Beyond __________________________________
  • NEW! Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
 in 2018/2019 __________________________________
  • NEW! Edinburgh Sunday International Concerts Series in 2018/19 __________________________________
  • NEW! Salzburg Whitsun Festival 7 – 10 June 2019 __________________________________
  • NEW! Bolshoi Ballet 2018/19 UK Cinema Season __________________________________
  • NEW! 2018-2019 Geneva Grand Theâtre Season __________________________________
  • NEW! 2018/19 Hallé Season in Manchester __________________________________
  • NEW! 2018/19 Tonhalle Orchestra Zürich __________________________________
  • Subscribe to Review Summary Newsletter

    Reviews by Reviewer

    News and Featured Articles

    __________________________________
  • NEW! The OAE Shakes Up Concert Hall Conventions as Players and Conductors Talk from Stage __________________________________
  • NEW! SOPRANO ELENA MOȘUC IN CONVERSATION WITH CASEY CREEL __________________________________
  • NEW! THE PIANIST ANGELA HEWITT IN CONVERSATION WITH GREGOR TASSIE __________________________________
  • R.I.P. Montserrat Caballé (1933 – 2018): A Personal Tribute by Jack Buckley __________________________________
  • NEW! The Future of Opera is Theatre: An Essay by Casey Creel __________________________________
  • NEW! Jacqui and David Morris’s New Documentary Film Nureyev Celebrates a Unique Man and Dancer __________________________________
  • NEW! MAESTRO RICCARDO FRIZZA IN CONVERSATION WITH MARGARIDA MOTA-BULL __________________________________
  • NEW! JACK BUCKLEY’S MEMORIES OF LINDSAY KEMP (1938-2018) __________________________________
  • NEW! THE GESUALDO SIX IN CONVERSATION WITH GEOFFREY NEWMAN __________________________________
  • NEW! A Q&A WITH GERMAN SOPRANO PETRA LANG __________________________________
  • NEW! TENOR NICHOLAS PHAN IN CONVERSATION WITH CHRISTOPHER SALLON __________________________________
  • NEW! THE PIANIST GEORGE HARLIONO IN CONVERSATION WITH GREGOR TASSIE __________________________________
  • NEW! HOW TO CONTACT SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL __________________________________
  • NEW! THE CONDUCTOR ALEXANDER SLADKOVSKY IN CONVERSATION WITH GREGOR TASSIE __________________________________
  • Search S&H

    Archives by Week

    Archives by Month