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Concert Review: Some Roads Lead to Rome

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
Sir John Eliot Gardiner brings old-style Berlioz to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Concert Review: Some Roads Lead to Rome

Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Photo courtesy Carnegie Hall.

Historically informed performance isn't always pretty. However, it is the specialty of Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Founded in 1989, the O.R.R.'s purpose is to play the masterpieces of the early 19th century on the instruments available at that time. On Sunday afternoon, they played the first of two concerts at Carnegie Hall this week, dedicated to that maverick among French composers, Hector Berlioz.
From the first piece on the program, the stirring Le Corsaire, this was Berlioz unleashed. The strings played this overture standing up (with the exception of the cellos), bowing lustily on gut strings and producing a tough and biting sound. The brass, armed with natural (valveless) horns, slide trumpets and ophicleides (funnel-like contraption, essentially bass bugles--they werelater replaced by the modern tuba) added to the din, played at a brisk and energetic tempo. However the effect was not harsh, but exhilarating, this music given fresh energy by the musicians' enthusiasm and the raw and vital sound.
Next, the orchestra was joined by mezzo-soprano Lucille Richardot for La mort de Cléopâtre, a cantata that ensured Berlioz' defeat in the 1829 Prix de Rome competition. (This was a commission contest, held among French music students with the prize being a scholarship to study in Italy). It is a cantata detailing the bad death of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Berlioz, whose orchestral ear and style stem from the fact that he never wrote on the piano, created a unique sound-world for this exotic tragedy, using radical rhythms and forms in such a way that he upset his judges. The work was never published in his lifetime.
Ms. Richardot proved to be a queenly Cleopatra, using her powerful, versatile instrument to convey regal insanity and despair. She brought some of the same qualities to the other Berlioz work on the program: Queen Didon's pre-suicidal monolog and aria "Je vais mourir ... Adieu, fière cité" from the fifth and final act of the composer's marathon opera Les Troyens. It was also possible to hear the development of Berlioz the composer in the contrast between the two pieces: the music from Troyens (from 1858) has the same fighting spirit but tempreed through wisdom and experience.
In between, Sir John Eliot and his forces offered a real aural treat: the Royal Hunt and Storm ballet music from the fourth act of Troyens. This surging, gusting music is a masterpiece of excessive orchestration, complimented by an offstage contingent of horns, an extra kettledrummer and, for the storm sequence, two pairs of saxhorns (a kind of small French tuba) providing the lightning bolts to the stormy dance. It is possible in this to hear Berlioz' profound influence on later works like Daphnis et Chlöe, and the orchestra played this piece with the reverence it deserves.
The second half featured Harold in Italie, that enchanting hybrid work that falls somewhere between a four-movement symphony and a concerto for solo viola. Played here by Antoine Tamestit, the solo part was originally written by Niccolo Paganini, but rejected by that virtuoso because he felt the soloist did not have enough to do. Indeed, Mr. Tamestit entered Stern Auditorium very late, wandering lonely like a cloud through the side door by stage right. With his fiddle in hand, he mounted the steps, stopping to let his instrument converse with the solo harp. He moved about during the three movements that followed, emphasizing the titular Harold's child-like qualities even as his nimble soloing spoke volumes of his experience and skill.
Following rapturous applause, Sir John Eliot and his forces offered one blissful encore. This was Ms. Richardot as Marguerite, singing the "Chant du roi de Thulé" from Berlioz' masterful La Damnation de Faust. (This is a cross between an oratorio and an opera, and has been both performed as a concert work and on occasion, fully staged.) As this tender music was subtly accompanied, it revealed two things.  Berlioz as a composer is far more than just bombast, and antiquated instruments are good for more than making a lot of historically informed noise.
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