France Berlioz: Michael Spyres (tenor), Timothy Ridout (viola), Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg / John Nelson (conductor). Salle Érasme, Palais de la Musique et des Congrès, Strasbourg, France, 13.10.2021. (CC)
Berlioz – Overture to Béatrice et Bénédict, H.138 (1860-62); Les nuits d’été, Op.7, H.81 (1841-56); Harold en Italie, Op.16, H.68 (1834)
John Nelson’s expertise and excellence in Berlioz is very much a known quantity, what with his award-winning Warner recordings with the Strasbourg orchestra of Les Troyens and La damnation de Faust. Operating on a rather less epic scale, this fascinating concert revealed other aspects of the great master: the filigree opening of Béatrice et Bénédict a case in point, superbly articulated by the Strasbourg violins.
One aspect of Nelson’s conducting that was immediately obvious, and which was a constant throughout, was his economy of gesture and yet how much he was able to communicate to his musicians. They clearly love him, as they respond to every micro-movement. The transparency of texture in the overture to Berlioz’s last opera was remarkable; just as astonishing was how Nelson elevated this to the status of mini-tone poem. The opening (taken from the opera’s final Scherzo–Duettino) fizzed, almost Mendelssohnian in demeanour, while Nelson created such a terrific sense of space around the Andante sostenuto (its material comes from Béatrice’s second act aria). Power and dynamic were there, too, a complete experience in just a few scant minutes.
Many associate Berlioz’s great song cycle to poems by Théophile Gautier, Les nuits d’été, with female singers, justifiably so given classic accounts from the likes of Régine Crespin, Dame Janet Baker and so on. While it is rarer to hear gentleman singers, one should remember the likes of Nicolai Gedda, Gérard Souzay and Stéphane Degout recorded the piece, while bass-baritone José van Dam went so far as to record it twice. There is a mix of voices there, too, tenor, baritone and bass-baritone, which in itself is significant. The range is indeed large: we should remember that the soloist on this occasion, Michael Spyres, who featured on Nelson’s Berlioz releases Les Troyens, Requiem and La damnation de Faust, has just released a disc on Warner Classics – Erato – called Baritenor (also with the Strasbourg Philharmonic, but conducted there by Marko Letonja). The 1856 orchestration of the 1841 cycle specified three separate ranges (tenor, baritone and contralto). Spyres sang all songs in the ranges intended by the composer
This was a languorous performance, slower than many, but full of infinite beauty. The opening ‘Villanelle’ brimmed with rhythmic life from the orchestra though, and Spyres’s charming phrasing was completely winning. There was a perfect sense of ease about delivery of both voice and orchestra. The textures for ‘Le spectre de la rose’ were beautifully light, the orchestral lines long and pure, Spyres’s legato at the opening ‘Soulève ta paupière close’ magnificent, a whisper into our ears. It was Nelson’s understanding of Berlioz’s harmonies, their interaction and latent directionality, which enabled the performance to cohere so well. Spyres’s breath control was magnificent – many singers would have been hugely tested here – as was the firmness of his lower, baritonal register; later, voice and clarinet were in perfect duet. Pianissimi sent tingles down the spine; how often do we hear a proper, really quiet and yet projected pianissimo?
The ‘Sur les lagunes’ here sounded like Berlioz’s ‘Studie zu Tristan und Isolde’ in its almost stifling hothouse chromaticism. Again, that lower register of Spyres was unforgettable, but this song revealed another aspect of his singing: that his voice is completely even across all of his (massive) range. Even more impressive was the way Spyres managed a clarion call at the opening of ‘Absence’ (at ‘Reviens, reviens’) within a medium dynamic; the orchestra positively glowed in response. Mood changes within the song were perfectly calibrated. Again, the tempo was on the slow side, but it enhanced the inherent beauty of Berlioz’s writing. The penultimate song, ‘Au cimetière’, was veiled and hushed,’ while the final ‘L’île inconnue’ seemed the perfect summation of previous beauties.
Every time I hear Spyres he is incredibly impressive: as in Berlioz’s Faust with Sir John Eliot Gardiner at the Proms in 2017 (review here) or as in Mitridate at Covent Garden with Rousset the same year (review here) for example. (My colleague Jim Pritchard also praised his Florestan in Paris recently here). This shorter outing was no less magnificent.
If the viola is famously not treated in quite such a soloistic way in Harold en Italie, it certainly sings, especially when the soloist is the young Timothy Ridout. This was a performance with a dramatic aspect to it, too, with Ridout leaving the stage at one point, returning via the stalls. The harpist (the excellent Salomé Mokdad) was placed at the front of the stage on the opposite side of the conductor from Ridout, enabling a prominence to their passages together. But there was already drama aplenty in Ridout and Nelson’s performance (the medici.tv relay dulls some of the urgency of the first movement, strangely, emphasising the resonance of the venue; it felt more focused in the hall itself). Nelson had the full measure of this expansive first movement, and the discipline of his players was remarkable. Just one example: a preternaturally together pair of clarinets, heard at the very lowest dynamic.
The shorter central movements were no less intense, Ridout’s vibrato-less sustained notes in the ‘Marche des pèlerins’ were immediately arresting. Nelson’s tempo felt just right. as it did in the third movement ‘Sérénade d’un montagnard des Abruzzes à sa maîtresse’; and how, in the latter stages, the woodwind piped, the very epitome of Romantic pastoralism.
Time and time again, Nelson made one sit in wonder at Berlioz’s orchestrational mastery. The finale, ‘Orgie des brigands’ seemed the perfect culmination of this (again, there was more detail audible in the hall than on the relay). Nelson’s ability to enable every strand to be audible at the highest dynamic levels is remarkable. A stunning performance.
This concert will be released on Erato in due course. The extended ovation was fully deserved, and at the spoken request of Nelson, Ridout gave an encore that was as surprising as it was energising and compelling: the ‘Ton schönheit ist Nebensache’ fourth movement of Hindemith’s Sonata for Solo Viola, Op.25/1. Virtuosity personified, and stupendously exciting.