Gardiner Relishes Berlioz’s Riotous Sonic Creativity

Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, led by John Eliot Gardiner, ripped into Berlioz at Carnegie Hall concerts.
(Concert photos by Stephanie Berger)
By Susan Brodie

NEW YORK — Anyone who believes that period-instrument ensembles sound anemic has never heard John Eliot Gardiner’s Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique tear into Hector Berlioz’s fiery overture, Le Corsaire. The work opened the two-concert series Oct. 14 and 15 by the UK-based period-instrument orchestra, rocking Carnegie Hall with the range of this most iconoclastic of 19th-century composers, the music ringing with the tangy orchestral colors the composer would have known.

Hector Berlioz, young and volatile, in 1832. (Émile Signol via Wiki)

One of  history’s most colorful musical figures, Berlioz reluctantly studied medicine at the insistence of his father, a successful doctor, but with degree in hand he enrolled in the Paris Conservatory. His father alternately reduced and cut off his allowance, but in 1830 Hector won France’s top composition prize, the Prix de Rome, giving him a small income for five years that he supplemented by writing music criticism.

A volatile man prone to romantic excesses, he had an enduring (though not exclusive) obsession with the Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson, who inspired many of his compositions (he married her, but the ending was not happy). Berlioz literally wrote the book on instruments: his Grand traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes (usually abbreviated in English to Treatise on Instrumentation) remains a landmark, and his posthumously published Mémoires is a most original and entertaining autobiography. But though Berlioz was sometimes better known in his lifetime for his writing, it’s his relatively small but choice musical legacy that we remember today.

Opening the first concert with the brilliant virtuosity of  Le Corsaire was an act of bravado, or, as a friend put it, “just showing off,” but the gamble paid off. The remainder of the first half was calmer but no less colorful.

Lucile Richardot sang Cléopâtre with “deep emotion tempered by regal dignity.”

Berlioz wrote the dramatic cantata La Mort de Cléopâtre as a Prix de Rome entry, but this student work, never performed in his lifetime, was simply too extreme for the judges, who found it shocking next to the classical balance of Spontini and Gluck’s then-fashionable music. But its craftsmanship and audacious vividness in depicting Cleopatra’s successive shame, despair, and resolve leading to her suicide by snakebite seem a logical precursor to the similarly varied Symphonie fantastique. French mezzo-soprano Lucile Richardot sang with glowing tone, impeccable diction, and deep emotion tempered by regal dignity. If she showed any discomfort at the range extremes required, much of the fault lies with the fledgling composer not yet experienced at writing for voice.

The saxhorns featured in “Chasse royale et orage” from Act IV of Les Troyens represented the latest technology: the addition of piston valves to brass instruments. This revolutionary innovation, patented by Adolphe Sax (of saxophone fame), allowed brass players to create pitch reliably by pressing a key instead of manipulating the overtone series with their lips, an often delicate task. Saxhorns were built in many sizes and resemble what later would be small Wagner tubas. The two pairs of higher-pitched saxhorns in this piece, emulating hunting horns, first played offstage and then entered to continue playing downstage, flanking the orchestra. As the final notes faded, Richardot stormed onto the stage to sing Dido’s “Je vais mourir…Adieu, fière cité,” already in character as the queen who had just discovered her lover Énée’s betrayal.

Violist Antoine Tamestit, on the move, acted out the drama of ‘Harold in Italie.’

After intermission came Harold en Italie, described in the program as “the ideal Berlioz work for those who don’t like Berlioz” (others call it the world’s longest viola joke). With two sunny solo viola motifs that recur throughout, Harold is an amiable work with little of the Sturm und Drang usually associated with its creator. Gardiner added some theatrics to Berlioz’s own stage instructions: several minutes into the opening fugue, viola soloist Antoine Tamestit timidly entered the auditorium from a side door. Gazing around with apparent confusion, he eventually climbed the steps to the stage and slowly meandered toward the harpist seated in front of the first violins. He turned his back to the conductor to play the dreamy first theme in an intimate duet with the harp. Throughout the four movements, he rarely stood in one place, and he actually retreated into the orchestra at the violent opening of the last movement, “Orgie de brigands,” only to reappear upstage to end the piece as part of a string quartet and very much part of the ensemble. But the well-deserved solo bows were all his.

After the encore ‘Le roi de Thulé,’ Richardot, Gardiner, Tamestit acknowledge applause.

For an encore, the two soloists teamed with the orchestra for “Le roi de Thulé,” Marguérite’s song from La damnation de Faust, a gentle ballad beautifully suited to the mezzo.

The next evening brought a crowd to hear Symphonie fantastique and Lélio together, paired as Berlioz hoped they would be. They are not formally equivalent works, but Lélio, ou le retour à la vie, a kind of sequel to Symphonie, provides a contrast in structure and intensity. Together they explore the psyche of a man obsessed. Symphonie has a descriptive program of the opium-driven fantasies of a young man in love, his obsession represented by an idée fixe (recurring theme) that returns in different guises throughout the work, while Lélio traces his recovery from his earlier madness.

With its five characterful movements, Symphonie fantastique is a justifiably popular repertory staple. Gardiner’s high-energy approach emphasized transparency of inner voices, violent contrasts in volume and tempo, grand pauses, and maximum drama, sometimes to the point of deconstruction. Yet during the more meandering passages, as in the “Scène aux champs,” Gardiner shaped long arcs, maintaining a sense of direction.

Berlioz buttons, given out to the crowd, acknowledged a favorite work.

The many old instruments provided visual as well as auditory interest, as when stagehands carried four harps in front of the podium for the second movement, “Un bal.” Four young ladies facing upstage plucked prettily as a trumpeter stood to play solos. Harps and harpists left the stage for the remainder of the work, and as the musical ideas grew darker, so did the sonorities. In the “Marche au supplice,” the early brass and wind instruments — valveless horns and cornets, trombones, bassoons, ophecleides (a precursor to the tuba), and the already archaic serpent (another tuba predecessor) — blasted and snarled as if to to wake the dead. The final orgiastic jig, juxtaposed with the “Dies irae,” ended the lover’s dream in a frenzied infernal nightmare. The audience loved it.

Lélio portrays the same man, having survived a suicide attempt, or perhaps his opium addiction, pulling himself back to life by rededicating himself to composition. His spoken narrative, performed here in English by the actor Simon Callow, is punctuated by the music he writes. After ruminations on Shakespeare — almost impossible to understand because of Carnegie’s poor speech amplification — we heard “Le pécheur,” ravishingly sung by tenor Michael Spyres to piano accompaniment. A somber “Choeur des ombres,” sung by the sweet-timbred 117-member National Youth Choir of Scotland, is a slowly pulsing, haunting meditation on death, punctuated by sudden outcries.

The narrator forces himself to cheer up by composing a rousing “Chanson des brigands,” dominated by the gleeful roars of the choir lads singing back-up to bass-baritone Ashley Riches. Memories of happy love echo in a lovely tenor barcarole, with Spyres, again exquisite, showing perfect command of voix mixte. A gentle orchestral pastorale follows, introduced by an imitation of bagpipes. In the lead-up to the elegaic-sounding “Fantaisie sur la Tempête de Shakespeare,” the narrator speaks of reconciliation to life, but fantasizes dying entwined in the arms of his beloved under an oak tree, so it is little surprise that after the music and his final words fade, he too fades into darkness.

Listen to the first concert, embedded below.
Facebook users can watch a demonstration of the ophecleide here.

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts, and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at @Susan Brodie (Twitter) and Toi Toi Toi!