Royal Albert Hall
Tchaikovsky – Fantasy Overture: ‘Romeo and Juliet’
Janáček – Taras Bulba
Berlioz – Harold en Italie, op.16
Maxim Rysanov (viola)
European Union Youth Orchestra
Matthias Bamert (conductor)
I have still yet to hear Sir Colin Davis conduct the Symphonie fantastique or Harold in Italy live, though I shall cherish memories of Les troyens for the rest of my life. Tonight was to have been the night for Harold, but Davis had to withdraw on health grounds: all Berlioz-lovers, Mozart-lovers, music-lovers will wish Sir Colin a swift recovery. Berlioz aside, this was perhaps not an obvious Davis programme; however, it does not, on the strength of this concert, seem to have been an obvious Matthias Bamert programme either.
Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet fared best: the European Youth Orchestra providing a vivid, heartfelt performance. The slow, sombre introduction proved full of foreboding, whilst Bamert’s flexibility of transition marked that to the urgent, sharply characterised first group and other passages too. There was, for instance, no sense of treading water until the ‘love theme’; the material was instead shown to be motivically, dramatically important. Strings were simply gorgeous, truly Tchaikovskian. The development brought precision, though not of the clinical variety, and urgency in exchanges between Montagues and Capulets – and how, later on, the love theme would soar as it suffered incursions from those families!
Though I am a passionate admirer of Janáček, his Taras Bulba has never struck me as one of his stronger works, even in the hands of a Kubelík or a Mackerras. And so it was here, under a deputising conductor who seemed to have little particular sympathy for the composer. The orchestra once again played very well. There were notable solos, for instance from leader, Sarah Sew in The Death of Andriy, and it was good to hear the Royal Albert Hall organ (Robin Green) in gentler music, properly contrasted with bells and military clangour. Yet the music was often too relaxed or (the second movement) too driven, and lacked the authentic Janáček edge. A sense of the whole, admittedly difficult to impart in this work, remained elusive. There were hints of the Glagolitic Mass at the conclusion, but they did not seem truly to emanate from the heart of the music.
Harold in Italy benefited from an outstanding performance from Maxim Rysanov, but the orchestral direction proceeded in fits and starts. The opening of the first movement was most promising: purposeful to an uncommonly, yet convincingly, Beethovenian degree. The bassoon’s baleful melancholy (Maria García Gallego) heightened expectations, which seemed set to be fulfilled – and they were – by Rysanov’s spellbinding reveries: some wondrous pianissimi here. Bamert imparted a reasonable amount of fantasy – though this of all composers needs more than ‘reasonable’ – but here and elsewhere, he seemed reluctant to draw out Berlioz’s array of orchestral colour. Moreover, his direction lacked the sense of line that Davis would doubtless have contributed. It would always have been difficult for the mystery of the second movement’s opening to have emerged through a concerted barrage of coughing. However, once the audience had (relatively) calmed down, the lack of magic was also to be attributed to Bamert’s hurried tempo and lack of affinity with Berlioz’s orchestration. The EUYO’s strings brought considerable warmth to proceedings, however. Again, there was excellent solo work from Rysanov. His gift for projection, especially when playing softly, is uncommon: the viola’s harmonics were both present and thematically meaningful. Sadly, the conclusion to this movement was not helped by what sounded like a passing aeroplane, soon to be drowned out by inter-movement audience hubbub. There was a nice lilt to the third-movement serenade, and a truly magical placing of the viola’s idée fixe against the orchestra’s contrasting rhythms and solos. The mind’s eye could see Berlioz’s Italian landscape, though it has been painted in less restrained fashion. An almighty cymbal clash announced the final movement – and showed the noisy audience who ultimately was in charge: not before time. The return of the opening material brought a renewed sense of purpose: this would seem to suit Bamert more than much of what goes in between. But that, of course, is only a small part of this movement. Here, the conductor had a tendency to drive too hard, though this is something very difficult to get right. (Sir Colin, by some miracle, always has.) Direction was also, at least at times, charmlessly metronomic. The solo strings played well, though.