The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

BBC: BBC NOW, Thierry Fischer. Stunning realization of Berlioz Romeo et Juliette (complete). Cardiff, Wales. 15.4.11.

Whenever the occasion arises Thierry Fischer conducts something major Berlioz, this performance of Romeo et Juliette further proved all should get put aside to attend or hear such an event. He borrows from the ‘period’ movement somewhat in how to conceptualize how Berlioz should sound to modern ears, but less as a musicologist, ideologue than the unusually insightful flautist he has been – under Abbado and Harnoncourt (with Chamber Orchestra of Europe). The results reflect subservience of what we know about playing nineteenth century music ‘period’ – on modern instruments here – to music composed instead of vice versa.

Nothing Berlioz composed better explains how genuine the working out, attainment of his goals than his ‘dramatic symphony, Romeo et Juliette. Fischer, while at helm of the BBC National Wales has prudently waited until after programming several other major works, notably the less evenly inspired Damnation de Faust (for which he had better vocal soloists than for this). Berlioz, with Romeo et Juliette – inspired by insatiable infatuation for Harriet Smithson – ratcheted up what expectations he had for performing this from how he composed Symphonie fantastique not long before.

Among settings of Shakespeare’s tragedy to music, including Gounod opera inspired by this, this instead of being conventional setting of synopsis to music is transformation of sorts instead. The premise for their being purely orchestral movements enclosed within external frame of this work is highly unusual. They exist to suggest a level of expression that words, in breaking off, fail to express, even perhaps still as set to music - why performances of just the orchestral movements fail to satisfy. Truncation away from what – even in a rarefied way – prepares the listener for hearing all of this music, combining chanson, orchestral form, chorally accompanied cortege, purely scenic music, and finally cantata never seems quite right. Calling this the greatest genius in having set Romeo and Juliet to music understates the case.

Keen anticipatory sense informed dueling fugato opening the Introduction with violas and cellos chomping at the bit - keeping all incisive and firm at once. Spring to the rhythms more than how hard Fischer’s musicians can dig in became paramount – with paprika from woodwinds stirring up agitation from within. Brass triplets accompanied marcia, at cut time, elicited fine swagger, while firming up all about. Lean brass nobly profiledthe Duke’s edicts – strings daringly very light with broken ‘fight’ music beneath. Anticipatory sense through simple textual pointing replaced going at choral prologue ‘church style.’ Susan Bickley, lightly intoning her distraught lines expressively, matched choral work well. Brief interlude previewing the Capulets’ ball was well animated with BBC NOW winds slightly lengthening out their staccati. Inhalation, exhalation informing choral lines opening with ‘Helas’ conveyed the mystery of Berlioz’s writing, with meaningfully ‘scene d’amour’ preview natural outgrowth of all having preceded.

Much febrile wistfulness informed sighing violins opening ‘Romeo seul.’ Winds next sighing cantilena refrain on simple four note figure – limned by fine violins’ obbligato, helped complete the picture. Rustling preview of ball scene neatly limned continuing spinning out in oboe of cantilena above – ending with suggestion of ‘Scene aux champs’ from ‘fantastique’ well delineated here. Precisely terraced forth party music helped bring all out in the open, for dizzying vortex encircling bacchanalian main idea taking center stage, suffusing every level. Incidence of intrusive dissonant explosions always clearly emerged without blocking surge forward. Razor sharp incisive engagement while keeping all light left developing energy through all this left in check. Formidable chorale in unison brass took forefront over continual repeat of revelry theme, just having passed through upper woodwinds lightening it over deft pizzicato. Muffled rumination in bassoons, lower strings under momentarily deeply subdued wild revelry prepared final lift of blazing intensity to playing, scenography represented thereof.

Besotted post tonal haze engulfed all air about – strings marked double pianissimo to segue in ‘Scene d’amour’, trailed by more alert remaining allotment of carousing revelers well off in the distance. Berlioz had already written his choral bacchanale in Benevenuto Cellini (popularly known from the ‘Roman Carnival’ Overture). Imagine how well less of an impression he may have made had he included choral parts for wild party at the Capulets. Berlioz perhaps improved a little upon Shakespeare here without such.

Wafting in with ease then emerged ‘Scene d’amour.’ Distraction comes to mind of the inane ‘shadow play’ of previous action in the Ring at the Met to pictorialize narration by Siegmund and Wotan - Wagner, in need of props, in other words. Narrative sense combined with never layered on, but fully suggested eroticism provided complete picture with all color to infuse it, including very light murmur filigree in violins placed far back. Lift over crest or refrain to main subject happened with great ease, through achievement of full flush in C Major (minor key mediant). Short figures then intimated Juliet’s deferring reply to Romeo’s impassioned entreaties. Anguish in violins’ suspension laden ascending line gradually intensified. Affectation of ‘period’ throughout Scene d’amour, while played on modern instruments and without handicapping feeling this music should evoke was most, instead of least effective here; one would not need any props to be able to visualize picture in mind. Regret, desire for all to linger on beyond indefinitely acutely highlighted all expressivity during what followed.. Fischer informed the self-transformative character of material on display here, what made it ‘new music’ the time it was written, with plethora of detail micro-managed deep from within this music’s fabric, for it to all speak eloquently on its own.

An almost Webern-esque pointing of sonorities opening ‘Queen Mab’ Fischer handled just as such. Presto marking got understated, but much light pointing constantly shifting colors made all appear as though going by more quickly than it was. Middle section, mournfully intoned from winds beneath sustained pedal of harmonics in the violins was equally rapt – at tempo hardly slower than for outer sections – ‘Mab’ still lightly pulsating underneath. Descant chording in winds subtly obscured full resumption of ‘Mab’ followed by bright caccia horns’ episode moving toward sudden blaze in full brass – understated here – shock of making dissonance of common chord sufficiently compelling instead. Surrealistic lighting to infuse further caroling of ‘Mab’, decorated by harp and contra-bassoon, was very distinctive, then working way itoward slow drifting away into the mists of encroaching daylight. Jean-Paul Fouchecourt ideally made tripping arabesque out of Mab scherzetto ending Part One, with alternatively pointillistic diatonic and filled out chromatic sonorities behind him - toward very brief visited foreboding close to this interlude.

Into cortege opening Part Three, overall spell still carried over. Seldom a chorus on too often self-important repeated sustaining pedal of one pitch, sings softly enough to naturally place behind sinuous lines in strings and winds – toward having repeated pitch intertwined all within – but it happened here. By time choral and orchestral forces trade places, all usually has started sounding vaguely Brahmsian instead. Rapidly repeating E’s up higher, carrying drifting spectral line off well into the distance, at last avoided sounding merely silly.

Connecting line through ‘’Romeo au tombeau des Capulets’ was, comparable to during preceding cortege – again something to behold. Mystery engulfed low bass chords in very foreign keys, coming off ascending agitated sequence of tremoli led by the strings. English horn led lower winds dolefully lamented Invocation to follow with neither pause nor stylization, but with color between combined unison winds very rich. Through several acute final episodes, intensity of the playing, backed by security equalling that of any modern orchestra, was amazing. Fischer’s achievement of harmonic ear, way of providing illusion of sustaining overtones beyond dry grounding in groaning contra-basses far underneath, through broken wild interjections from especially the strings was practically surreal – for music seemingly impossible to ‘get right.’ Romeo’s invocation provided Fischer ideal sense of sustaining impetus throughout all this.

Until forthright benedictory ode to complete, frame both Part Three and symphony itself, Fischer in accompanying baritone Jonathan Lemalu (Frer Laurent), unstable vocally, became helpless in how to sustain any further musical interest, with Berlioz having left it to the soloist to do so here. This cantata, with its concluding ode, is musically the most conventional portion of this work. Fischer’s flowing and sinuous accompaniment for Susan Bickley through Strophes (Part One) was valuable in preparing what would follow. Encountering slight effort around the break, Bickley, vocally plain overall, was expressive, faithful to text, understanding well its meaning.

Among three Colin Davis recordings of Romeo et Juliette I have auditioned, the one with the Vienna Philharmonic, with fine soloists, has proven the best. I still have yet to try his first Philips recording. Furtive glance can be made back at comprehensive Berlioz legacy Davis has assembled, as to how he approached this music - and proto-period accents therein – before we had ‘period’ interpretation of music written (well) after 1800.

There is, apart from Les Troyens, no more a tour de force musically, aesthetically within the Berlioz canon than Romeo et Juliette. Berlioz had indeed reserved a most rarefied quality for achieving what opens out here. Thierry Fischer painstakingly revealed here how one can open out some truly incredible insights, toward making the radicalism of Berlioz’s vision seem entirely fresh. Fischer is acutely sensitive to Berlioz having drawn upon music, tradition of the past – especially Gluck, whose aesthetic invocation of antiquity spurred on Berlioz’s vision, radicalism thereof. Fischer’s grasp of the simplicity deeply ingrained within this sphere, as something inhabiting a different dimension than any ‘period’ practice can alone convey was very telling - Berlioz’s vision paramount, indisputably of sole importance – most sublimely effective with ‘Romeo et Juliette.'

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