Royal Festival Hall
26 September 2013
The great love scene under Salonen, this time with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Proms in 2007.
Beautiful playing from the Philharmonia misses some of the work's passion in favour of establishing symphonic credentials.
Although you can see why Berlioz called this masterpiece – one of music's pinnacles – a dramatic symphony, it’s a misleading and indeed oxymoronic title: a symphony is already a form of drama in music.
It is because he took things rather further, and linked his work closely to Shakespeare’s drama, adding arias and choruses, but although I feel this is an important attempt to ‘realise’ Shakespeare’s tragedy in music, that isn’t the central achievement here. This is firstly a symphony, albeit a strange one.
For one thing, the work doesn’t end in tragedy, but rather in reconciliation and hope, more related to Beethoven’s ninth than anything in Shakespeare (except The Tempest). Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen was especially good here, expertly pacing the final movement’s transition from conflict to peace, itself reminiscent of the last few minutes of the ninth.
The finale is less important than in other major post-Beethoven symphonies because its composer sidesteps the problem of how to craft a finale that will sounds effective after a profoundly searching slow or tragic movement.
Berlioz’ slow movements are an ecstatic love scene and a Gluck-inspired funereal chorus, both extremely moving though the love music carries off the palm by virtue of being some of the most beautiful music we have (as Toscanini claimed).
The last movement instead contrasts with and follows the jarring, forceful music of the movement titled ‘Romeo at the Capulet’s tomb’. Salonen’s pacing and dynamics were excellent in both of these tricky movements.
Berlioz isn't self-evidently successful in creating a symphony out of these disparate movements, though the sense of being jolted around is much less prevalent here than in his other characteristic works, and there is less of the sense of frantically running without moving.
I have some sympathy with those critics, starting with Wagner, who adore parts but find the whole tiring. This may be because the aria-and-chorus concerted bookends can seem problematic. The first movement is described as a prologue even by champions like David Cairns, and the symphony does seem to be launched twice. The ending, as described above, counterbalances sudden and shuddering violent death rather than overwhelming grief, which comes earlier and is in any case classically restrained.
So it’s to Salonen’s credit that he imparts full gravity to these outer movements and makes them work.
It is a pity his approach was less successful elsewhere. Partly this was due to lack of ferocity or crudeness, common among conductors wanting to place Berlioz within the pantheon of sober symphonists. Partly it was also due to insufficient romance, either in the first movement or more seriously in the love scene.
But this is actually a small quibble. Is a more magical experience possible than when the offstage voices fade away and the love scene properly starts? And wasn’t Toscanini right? This is the kind of experience that transforms the way we feel, at least for some decent time afterwards.