Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LSO/Gergiev @ Barbican Hall, London

1 & 12 November 2013

Karen Cargill(Photo: KK Dundas)

Karen Cargill
(Photo: KK Dundas)

This concert in the London Symphony Orchestra’s two week long Inside the Mind and Music of Berlioz festival allowed Valery Gergiev to demonstrate his talents as a Berlioz conductor over a variety of forms by including an overture, a cantata and a symphony. Gergiev’s skill  rests in his ability to be strident and assertive in his interpretations of the composer’s works, while bringing out the strict musicality inherent within them.

Berlioz may have done some pretty revolutionary things in his compositions, and been purposely radical in his understanding of what well established musical forms such as the symphony could achieve, but neither point means that he ever sacrificed the notion of what actually sounded good as music. This is a fact that we are perhaps more inclined to appreciate today as we are less likely to be ‘shocked’ by, and hence dismissive of, his output, and it is one with which Gergiev would appear to have a particular affinity.

The concert opened with a forceful and striking performance of the overture to Benvenuto Cellini (1836-38) in which the rhythmic unity as the piece accelerated towards its conclusion was maintained particularly well. Mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill then gave an immensely rich and full-blooded performance of the remarkable cantata, The Death of Cleopatra (1829), in which the eponymous heroine laments the shame she has brought on gods and pharaohs alike by failing to conquer Octavius with her charms.

Cargill employed a vibrato that, though large, never felt excessively forceful or harsh because it proved to be a natural extension of her strong voice. When she asserted the most anguished cries her voice entered a different domain by presenting the most striking sound, the beauty of which would permit it to be described as ethereal, irrespective of the thoughts being expressed. At the other end of the spectrum the moments when Cargill wallowed most in self-pity and despair saw her place a greater emphasis on the mouth as opposed to throat to shape the sound, thus handing the lines a far greater sense of human frailty. The final stanza could hardly have been bettered as it felt as if Cleopatra had been reduced to producing mere ‘breaths of sound.’

After the interval Antoine Tamestit was the viola soloist for an exquisite performance of Berlioz’ second symphony, Harold in Italy (1834), in which so many of Tamestit’s gestures conveyed a finely balanced range of emotions. His first entry in the opening movement employed a firm approach to achieve a mellifluous sound, and the interplay between the soloist and orchestra throughout was superb. In the second movement Tamestit’s handling of the arpeggios was so controlled that they became hypnotic, and the orchestra’s final long diminuendo, which ended with the viola’s final ‘breaths’, was highly moving.

The cor anglais melody in the third movement was beautifully executed, but it was perhaps the final ‘Brigand’s Orgy’, with its exploration and rejection of the previous movements’ themes, and the momentary, nostalgic interlude from Tamestit before the final ‘descent’ towards the tumultuous conclusion, that left the greatest impression.

The performance on 12 November was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and will be available on iPlayer for a week.  

For information on The Berlioz Society click here.

Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk.

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