Hector Berlioz was not generally a reticent composer, least of all when it came to pronouncing on the value of his own music and the attention it deserved. Writing about his 1839 ‘symphonie dramatique’ Roméo et Juliette he insisted: “The work is enormously difficult to perform. It poses problems of every kind, only to be solved by long and patient rehearsal, impeccably directed. To be well done, it needs first-rate performers – players, singers, conductor – intent on preparing it with as much care as a new opera is prepared in a good opera house, in fact almost as if it were to be performed by heart.”
That the performers in this case were first-rate goes almost without saying, given the line-up. The vocal soloists did their best with the scant opportunities offered them by the score: tenor John Mark Ainsley’s brief moments of exposure were energetic and wonderfully characterised; Patricia Bardon (last-minute replacement for an indisposed Sonia Ganassi) served up her luxuriously dark-hued mezzo. Her wide vibrato is perhaps better suited to a later and more operatic type of role, but the tone was nonetheless beautiful. Orlin Anastassov had to wait until the closing minutes for his chance to shine; but shine he then did, his powerful dramatic bass weighing in impressively against the combined chorus – and from memory, too.
Oxford’s Schola Cantorum were more obviously matched to the early-music sound world of the OAE. They brought impressive French diction and a generous helping of dreaming-spires a cappella clarity to their (admittedly odd) contribution. It’s difficult to imagine in what circumstances Roméo’s highly unusual choral recitative could have appeared a good idea; but then Berlioz was nothing if not inventive. The BBC Symphony Chorus provided heft when required and were clearly making an effort to inject energy into what is the most bizarrely meandering part of Berlioz’s score. Quite why half of them were kitted out in multicoloured shirts instead of the otherwise ubiquitous black remains a mystery.
Above all, though, it was the OAE and Sir Mark Elder who were the driving forces behind this performance. For the OAE, Berlioz’s music marks a decisive step into the heady Romanticism of the mid-nineteenth century, quite a distance from their once-natural habitat of the baroque and classical repertoire. Indeed, with its battery of harps (four), double basses (seven) and percussionists (eight), Roméo provides territory in some ways even more exotic than the new commissions the orchestra has increasingly pursued of recent years alongside its (brown) bread and water of ‘early music’. Not for Berlioz those light touches of vibrato, hi-res articulation and tasteful exuberance that remain the OAE’s trademark. The man who wrote the nineteenth century’s most famous orchestration treatise was interested above all in sound, and lots of it, often taking advantage of the newest instruments then available, from contrabassoon to ophicleide, valve trumpet and five-stringed double bass.
Led with obvious pleasure by Elder, the OAE dealt admirably with what many have thought the eccentricities of the piece: the blink-and-you-miss-it flashes of melodic inspiration; the rhythmic complexities; the harmonies that often seem to hark from another, much later age; the constant, sudden about-turns of mood and musical direction. The strings were finely etched throughout, endlessly responsive to Elder’s hyper-detailed reading, while woodwind, brass and (yes) percussion solos were always committed, often astonishingly beautiful despite the palpable obstacles to tuning presented by early nineteenth-century wind and brass instruments.
All this was tremendously invigorating, but I couldn’t help but wish – to invoke Hector’s ghost one last time – that we’d heard the same musicians playing modern instruments. Rather than being returned to something like the sounds Berlioz himself might have heard (and complained about), we might have heard a performance more as the composer imagined it, with the instruments of his future. It would, of course, be a further departure for the OAE; but one that this extraordinary performance suggested would be well worth embracing.
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