Saturday, 9 November 2013

Roméo et Juliette

Barbican, London
6 November 2013

Olga Borodina singing the strophes from the first part of Berlioz' symphony. 
Conducted by Colin Davis rather than Valery Gergiev (as at the Barbican). From here.

An underrated  perhaps because unclassifiable – pinnacle of music drama receives another moving and profound interpretation.

Berlioz refused to make things easier for himself. Is this work meant to be judged as a representation of Shakespeare’s tragedy or is it an independent piece with aspects inspired by that drama? I think that is the correct way to think of the problem, for we can easily agree that it is a type of symphony and not a type of opera: it’s place is the concert hall, not the theatre.

David Cairns has been writing about Berlioz, and this work, almost everywhere for what must be decades now, and he has another go in the programme notes to this concert. But I think he still doesn’t address the right problem. He seems to want to justify the piece as a ‘pure’ symphony, but then what is going on in the penultimate section, Romeo alone at the tomb, if even Cairns needs to describe it in terms of Garrick’s mutilated Shakespeare? Can it stand alone within the context of the work, and nowhere else?

I’m probably making too much of this. Perhaps this is a hybrid, best understood sometimes in terms musical and sometimes in terms extra-musical. Thankfully it’s a dramatic masterpiece, regardless of classification. But I wonder if the tradition of playing the orchestral parts on their own doesn’t hint at a serious musical weakness when considering it as a ‘symphony’. We wouldn’t approve of playing one or several parts of Beethoven’s own Choral Symphony on their own. Then again, Wagner is often played out of context. Lapses in taste happen.

This is the second performance of this work I have heard recently: a blessing for which I am grateful. Valery Gergiev’s view of it corresponds to his view of everything – it is played with great ferocity and dynamic contrast. The start of the opening movement was so fast even the London Symphony Orchestra seemed to be gabbling.

Not everything was so hard-driven. The neoclassical choral simplicity of the fifth movement, starting the third part, came off well, though I didn’t feel the next two movements, the hardest to bring off, produced the right sense of troubled reconciliation emerging from conflict. Gergiev’s approach made the conflict extremely thrilling, but the lengthy aria-and-chorus that concludes the symphony needs to feel much less perfunctory.

At the centre of this titanic depiction of love and death, conflict and peace, is the wonderful Love Scene. It worked its effect, as it almost always does, but I regretted that the conductor maintained tension without providing suitable release.

The orchestra, double chorus and soloists were excellent, especially Olga Borodina’s dramatic performance of the strophes in the first part, quite unusually dramatic, but very appropriate.

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