Thursday, 16 August 2007

Salzburg Festival: Berlioz concert, VPO/Riccardo Muti, 14 August 2007

Hector Berlioz

Symphonie fantastique, Op.14
Lélio, ou Le retour à la vie, Op.14b

Gérard Depardieu (narrator)
Michael Schade (tenor)
Ludovic Tézier (baritone)
Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Riccardo Muti (conductor)

Performances of Lélio would appear to happen roughly once in a blue moon. Since Berlioz stipulated that his sequel should be performed only after a performance of the Symphonie fantastique, it does not seem unreasonable to honour his request, given the rarity value of hearing Lélio at all. There are musical and programmatic relationships between the works, and Lélio would most likely seem simply odd without its elder sibling.

Short of engaging Sir Colin Davis, who remains hors concours amongst today's conductors of Berlioz, the pairing of Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic augured well, and so it turned out. Muti's is a relatively Classical Berlioz, although that may partly have been a product of the orchestra's identity. Yet whilst the musical line retained a Classical coherence throughout, this did not preclude Romantic fire, where necessary - as opposed to wherever possible. This was certainly the case at the climaxes of both works. Muti's Gluck - a composer of whose music he is indubitably the finest living conductor - sprang to mind, not inappropriately, given Berlioz's reverence for the eighteenth-century dramatic master.

The Symphonie's waltz owed its ebb and flow to a keen ear for orchestral colour and balance, and to perfectly judged rubato. If the VPO cannot waltz, then nobody can. The Scène aux champs can easily drag in the wrong hands; here there was no question of that. Instead, Berlioz showed himself a worth heir to the Beethoven of the Pastoral Symphony, albeit with colours that were all his - and the orchestra's - own. The English horn shone in its solo, and the kettledrums at the end (and in the following movement) could hardly have been more commanding in the perfection of their crucial crescendi and diminuendi. I was slightly surprised by the sheer weirdness of the sound of the muted horns at the beginning of the fourth movement. Those fabled Vienna horns clearly do not have to do Gemütlichkeit. And the Witches' Sabbath was duly riotous, Tricky rhythms, as throughout, were expertly handled, as were their harmonic implications, without ever sacrificing the necessary sense of abandon. The bells for once sounded just right: we were in a churchyard after all. Muti knew where the whole work was going right from the very start. This is an orchestral showpiece, but that should be a given, not an end. It is a symphony, which is what we heard, most impressively.

Lélio is, however, anything but a symphony. On the page it must seem a motley, indeed bizarre, collection of pieces, strung together by an equally strange narration. It needs an excellent performance - and probably needs the Symphonie too - to come off. I do not know whether the various participants had ever performed the work before; one would never have guessed that they had not. Depardieu proved a commanding and sensitive narrator: master of ceremonies might be a more appropriate term. What could so easily seem a rambling piece of outdated self-regard proved actually to be a fascinating summit of the strange world of French Romanticism. It was amusing to hear him tell the VPO that its players, having performed his Tempest fantasy, would now be ready to tackle more demanding works, for they impressed just as much as they had during the first part of the concert. The Vienna State Opera Chorus was wonderfully precise, and yet possessed the necessary weight for its great moments too. The soloists impressed, especially the versatile Michael Schade. Horatio's fisherman's song (a setting of his text by the composer/narrator) was delectable. Staging and lighting were well conceived. I had wondered to start with whether it would have been preferable to have the musicians hidden from view until the Shakespeare fantasy, as was Berlioz's wish, rather than veiled, but the latter course worked well - and added to the phantasmagorical effect. This performance made a very strong case indeed for more frequent performance. Let us hope that this case will be heeded.