Berlioz may have been optimistic when he said of his Roméo et Juliette, “There will doubtless be no mistake as to the genre of this work”. For many years after they were written, it was questioned whether even Mahler’s choral symphonies actually constituted symphonies, and even though today we can firmly accept Berlioz’s creation as one, it still seems to combine symphony, opera and oratorio.
Immersed in the French tradition of his day, which largely rejected the symphony, Berlioz decided to turn the story of Romeo and Juliet into one after experiencing Shakespeare’s play and Beethoven’s Ninth (which also inspired the Symphonie Fantastique and Harold en Italie). Structurally, it is intriguing, although David Cairns stresses that “the more one studies it the stronger its compositional grasp appears”. So far from being arbitrary, the scheme is logical, and the mixture of genres — the legacy of Shakespeare and Beethoven — precisely gauged.
The symphony begins with an orchestral Introduction, which the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by Sir Mark Elder, played with a strident yet velvety tone that brought out both the immediacy and beauty of the music. Then follows a choral prologue (sung admirably by the Schola Cantorum of Oxford Choir), which prepares the audience for the subsequent plot and musical themes. It does, however, omit a few key issues such as the specific event that inspires the Montagues and Capulets to unite, so as not to give everything away. This section featured excellent solos from Patricia Bardon (replacing an ailing Sonia Ganassi) and John Mark Ainsley, whose ‘characters’ introduce themes and concepts, rather than exist as individuals. Bardon, in particular, shone with her rich, resonant tone.
Then follow the six movements that take us through the story. Highlights here included the first of these, which employs selected wind, plucked lower strings and timpani, and Juliet’s moving Funeral March (one of two non-Shakespearean additions that Berlioz took from David Garrick). The BBC Symphony Chorus appeared in three of these six movements, Berlioz carefully ensuring that the human voice is never too far from the listener’s mind. In the Nuit serène, where the guests head home after the ball, the men’s voices were heard, as the composer intended, from offstage. Being positioned outside both sides of the hall, they created a ‘stereo’ effect that really enhanced the sense of being surrounded by the sound.
When the chorus graced the hall, one faction was pointedly dressed in bright colours and the other all in black, and if occasionally they felt just a shade behind the conductor, this was made up for by their tremendous sound. The Finale also introduced the bass Orlin Anastassov as Friar Lawrence who stole the movement with his deep, impassioned singing. Towards the end, it started to sound as if he was feeling the strain of such a big sing, but his was the most moving vocal performance of the night, and uniquely Anastassov had no music in front of him, enabling him to concentrate on character, and place his head in his hands in grief.
An abridged version of this concert will be performed by the OAE this Friday at the Roundhouse along with some jazz and electronica. It is part of the opening night of Reverb 2012, which aims to break down perceived musical barriers, and it is fitting that it should include Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette, which was defying traditional genres over 170 years ago.
This performance of Roméo et Juliette will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 26 February.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk