Berlioz remains one of the most unjustly neglected of composers of all time,
which is extraordinary considering his contribution to the development of
music in the nineteenth century.
Perhaps one of the reasons is his refusal
to stick to the standard dimensions of many genres. For instance, his opera
Les troyens is in two huge parts, a very long and expensive work to
stage, so much so that it was never put on complete in Berlioz's lifetime.
His concerto Harold en Italie lacks the traditional virtuosic
trappings of the form, and Paganini, who commissioned the piece, refused to
play it when he received the score (later coming to admire it, however). And
his version of the Romeo and Juliet story is neither an opera nor a
straightforward orchestral work, but instead a dramatic symphony in seven
It builds on the format of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, with large choral
forces, three vocal soloists and large orchestra, and the length (100
minutes without an interval) and expense of the undertaking are surely the
only reasons for its neglect in the concert hall, for it is one of Berlioz's
best works. The narrative style is most unusual.
The first movement tells of
the warring Montagues and Capulets, with the mezzo-soprano and tenor
soloists and semi-chorus relating the story in the third person. The second
movement is purely orchestral, describing the Capulet ball, and the third
involves the love scene interspersed with the revellers returning from the
ball (the chorus was evocatively positioned in the gallery for this
section). The symphony's most familiar excerpt is the Queen Mab scherzo, and
the fifth and sixth movements describe the death of the lovers.
The finale moves to a first person narrative, with the bass soloist playing
Friar Laurence and the chorus split into two halves, representing the rival
families. It was here that this Proms performance with the BBC Scottish SO
under Ilan Volkov became really special, although the rest was also very
satisfying. John Relyea played Laurence with gravitas, a face to watch as he
returns to London to play Banquo and Méphistophélès at Covent Garden next
year. In Berlioz's version of the story, the Friar and not the Prince brings
the sparring households together in a huge contrapuntal movement, here
played with an operatic excitement worthy of the finale of Beethoven's
Katarina Karnéus was outstanding as the mezzo soloist in the first movement,
and one's only regret was that Berlioz made the part so small. Since winning
the Cardiff Singer of the World in 1995, Karnéus has become famous for the
beauty of her voice and the intelligence of her execution, both aspects
apparent in this performance. She was audible when singing in unison with
the chorus and radiant in her big solos.
Less brilliant though by no means awful was Jean-Paul Fouchécourt as the
tenor soloist. He is a baroque specialist and seemed overwhelmed by the
power of Berlioz's massive orchestra.
The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was in sparkling form under its Chief
Conductor, Ilan Volkov. This young conductor was inspirational and never
distracting, directing firmly but not enforcing his ego onto the musicians.
The London Symphony Chorus was occasionally unfocussed in the earlier
movements, but gave vitality to the finale. This was a dedicated performance
from all sides, and an example of how the Proms are so unbeatable for their
wide range of unusual repertoire.