Berlioz at the Proms reviewed by Music OMH

Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique & Beethoven 5th at the Proms by Keith McDonnell
9th August, 2015 

Five stars from Music OMH
★★★★★
When a conductor is associated with a symphony as indelibly as Sir John Eliot Gardiner is to Beethoven’s 5th, how does he maintain a sense of freshness and vitality to successive performances? Isn’t he tired of it by now? A daft question of course, especially in light of the incendiary performance he gave on Sunday night at the Proms with his period band, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique.

Having heard the same forces perform the 5th at the Barbican in November last year, in many ways I knew what to expect; exceptional clarity, fast tempi, heavy accents, and a whirlwind finale. All these attributes that make Gardiner’s Beethoven so unique and memorable were present in abundance, although I felt some of the players might have been happier with a less frenetic first movement, but this was as thrilling as it gets.

If you like your Beethoven to be a ‘seat-of-your-pants’ ride, then this was for you. It has its detractors for sure, but the visceral excitement that came with the start of the last movement, when the woodwind and brass players rose to join the already-standing violins and violas sent a bolt of theatrical frisson through the Hall causing the hairs on the back of my neck to stand to attention.

After the interval Gardiner directed an expanded ORR in a no holds barred, earth-shattering performance of Berlioz’ often deranged ‘programme symphony’, Symphonie Fantastique. Never before had a composer written a symphony for such vast forces, so it’ll come as no surprise that Parisian audiences lapped up its excesses in 1830. For those of us used to hearing this work on modern instruments, hearing it performed on instruments that Berlioz would have recognised was a revelation. Again, textures were crystal clear, so one could revel in, and marvel at, Berlioz’ audacious scoring. Telling the story of a young poet’s hallucinatory infatuation with a beautiful woman, Berlioz takes us on a surreal five-part journey of the poet’s descent into madness.

There’s an almost pastoral feel to the start of the first section, ‘Reveries-Passions’, although the composer is always keen to undermine the apparent care-free world he’s drawing us into by indicating that there’s something more sinister lurking under the surface, and Gardiner captured this ambiguity to perfection, as did the players as the poet’s visions become more divorced from reality.

The second movement depicts a mad, frenetic ‘Ball’, with exaggerated waltz-like melodies and rhythms, made all the more surreal by the other-worldly use of the harps (their only appearance in the work). Gardiner’s scrupulous attention to detail was evident in every bar as it was in the following movement where our hapless hero finds himself in a field listening to two shepherds, here superbly voiced on the cor anglais by Gildas Prado, and echoed by Michael Niesemann’s evocative offstage oboe playing. In the diabolical ‘March to the Scaffold’, rasping trombone, contra-bassoon and bassoon is underpinned by the heavy tread of strings, and explosive percussion as the poet imagines being led to the scaffold to pay for the murder of his loved one. In Gardiner’s hands it’s as menacing as it is disturbing. Mayhem continued in the final section, ‘The Night of the Sabbath’, bringing this extraordinary performance to a thrilling climax.

The only down side is that it will be hard listening to Berlioz’s epic work on modern instruments after such a superlative rendition by Gardiner and his period forces. Once you’ve heard the rumblings of a serpent, there really is no going back.