Though he was one of the most important composers of his era, it cannot be counted strange that Gluck's music is seldom heard in the concert hall since his output was largely directed to the stage. Suites from the operas tend not to work so well as they do with say Rameau—partly as a result of the stylistic reforms Gluck pioneered. It's a shame nevertheless, in a way, because the overture to Alceste features some fine and distinctive scoring that one is always eager to hear more of. Notably, in this instance, there is some plangent melody-bearing woodwind writing, blending with the violins to unusual effect.
It is a nice way to set the stage for one of the undoubted masters of orchestral colouration, at large here in a setting more intimate than his customary spectacular milieu. As Conrad Wilson notes in the programme, the idea of 'summer nights' has a particular cachet with British audiences, redolent of that most pleasant time of year, whereas in continental Europe, summer is a time of stifling heat, and evening a time of respite. Nor do the texts chosen by Berlioz stick particularly closely to the summer motif. As a result there is a strangeness and emotional complexity about Nuits d'été.
There are less familiar sets of orchestral songs by French composers of the nineteenth century such as Duparc and Chausson, which the texts point towards with their fertile explorations of sensory simile. Berlioz's score, though, has more in common with Mahler—especially the young Mahler of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen—and the Four Last Songs of Strauss. (Maybe it's a pity Mahler didn’t set Baudelaire.)
Characteristically, the chamber scale brings a luminous balance between strings and winds to Berlioz's subtle sonorities and textures, further burnished by Robin Ticciati's pacing and phrasing. In the solo role, Karen Cargill brings a voice capable of considerable power, but with a corresponding dynamic range and not so much a chest voice as a walk-in-closet voice that affords her sotto voce passages a richly saturated quality. With these attributes at her disposal, her interpretations drew out the incipient darkness of Gautier's texts and complemented Berlioz's imaginative responses to them in a consistently absorbing performance.
One small curiosity in the Berlioz which reappeared in the following Schumann was the presence of piston horns—now alongside rotary trumpets. How the horns' sound differed from the normal modern rotary instruments is hard to describe, but there seemed to be less of the vibrant warmth and more of a simpler, muscular power. Of course Schumann's second is notable for some unusual and original brass writing, which can be difficult to pitch accurately—but not on this occasion.
Ticciati's compact and lively interpretation made for an interesting contrast with Roger Norrington's more opulent treatment with the RSNO a while back. Indeed it is intriguing that two such diverse readings could both be so satisfying. Whereas Norrington's setup brought rather magnificent, organ-like sonorities to the performance, Ticciati was able to revel in the subtleties of texture and shading afforded by the more fleet-footed ensemble, but yet was able to summon considerable weight and power when the moment demanded.
Today's Glasgow performance will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3.
Photo: Ken Dundas