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PROM 23: Hector Berlioz: Roméo et Juliette, dramatic symphony after Shakespeare’s tragedy, Soloists, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov, Royal Albert Hall, 31 August 2005 (ED)


Katarina Karneus (mezzo-soprano)
Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (tenor)
John Relyea (bass)
London Symphony Chorus
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov, conductor



What a curious and glorious thing Roméo et Juliette is! One can imagine it almost as the product of some odd European musical quango: Italian financed (20,000 francs from Paganini), English inspired (Shakespeare), with a German to emulate (Beethoven, specifically with the ninth symphony’s choral finale in mind) and brought to a head by a French composer… Add to this a Scottish orchestra, English chorus, soloists from Sweden, France and America, all led by an Israeli-born conductor, then the international mix is well and truly complete.


Seriously though, Berlioz in writing his dramatic symphony sought not to set the story of Romeo and Juliet as a straight narrative, but rather he and librettist Emile Deschamps selected from it seven episodes for their dramatic possibilities. That is the curious thing I referred to: one might have expected an already seasoned opera composer to turn naturally to the stage in his setting.


As Berlioz makes use of Garrick’s plot-altering version too, which sees Juliet awaken in the tomb for a final deathly duet with Romeo, artistic licence is taken with authentic Shakespeare and comment made directly upon the play and Shakespeare’s importance at one point. That too is curious, yet wholly understandable given that Berlioz was ‘struck down with a thunderbolt’ by the great bard. Such personalisation would scarcely have been possible on the stage, whilst still maintaining tension and realism. The work might almost have been titled “Scenes from…” rather like Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, a work the Berlioz pre-dates by 14 years, were it not for the wholly dramatic writing throughout.


So now to the glorious, yet curious, solution that Berlioz offers in the composition to drama inspired by the greatest of playwrights yet not set for the stage: dispense with words. Not entirely, of course; but three of the seven parts are entirely instrumental, and a further two augmented by chorus only. They are key moments too: an equivalent to the balcony scene, Romeo alone and the Capulet ball, Queen Mab, Juliet’s funeral cortège, and the tomb scene. All give lie to Berlioz’ belief that ‘instrumental language is richer, more varied, less restricted’ than word-setting and therefore more potent as a result.


All of which leads to the conclusion that in performance one needs exceptionally versatile and sensitive forces to let the drama spring through the notes, and that is precisely what we had. More than I can recall before I was left reeling at the sense of discovery with the detail projected from within the score by an orchestra playing with rare commitment. Every department was fully integrated to the whole, yet individual and characterful, and able to stand out without harshness or undue effort.


So they played I sensed not so much just because of their love of Berlioz and his supremely inventive writing, but for Ilan Volkov their chief conductor.  I admit, I am late to the ball as it were, with ‘discovering’ Volkov. Perhaps my dislike of music industry hype had meant our paths had not crossed in live performance until now, though to be fair I have tried a couple of times to hear him, but he cancelled on both. However when I least expected to hear Berlioz conducting on a level with that of Sir Colin Davis, there it was. Whilst not as romantically upholstered as Davis, nor as spare in sound as authenticists favour, Volkov steered his own path with assuredness way beyond his years.


To look at him, there was seemingly nothing amazing - a plain, simple yet incisive beat - but it is the musicality of the direction and ear for sonority, texture and (again) drama in the pacing that the orchestra clearly respond to. For a conductor that clearly delights in what an orchestra can do, there must be hardly a richer composer than Berlioz, and one his most inspired scores as well.


The fighting and tumult of the warring Capulets and Montagues that forms part one announced an orchestral sound that was alert and precise, but moreover showed unity in the playing and vigour in the glorious brass, lower strings and timpani, creating a sense of confusion that was almost palpable. The semi-chorus, in a strangely restrained setting by Berlioz, comment upon the scene as if removed from it; their tone sonorous and full.  Katarina Karneus’ contribution, sung as she was placed between violins, timpani, and harps, sought to emphasize Berlioz’ often chamber-like use of the vast orchestra. Her strophes, set to these sonorities, came across strongly with touches of the ethereal in her word-pointing of a text that Berlioz uses as external comment upon the whole. It is here that Karneus’ voice caught her breath as ‘the hot and windless air’ under which Romeo and Juliet have fallen in love.  The inflection changed too – almost imperceptibly – on ‘First love! Are you not above all poetry?’ to become almost a voice from the eternal with ‘Shakespeare alone had the secret’.


If this were not enough, then almost as a corresponding half to the part Jean-Paul Fouchécourt’s high tenor and semi-chorus delivered the first of the two Queen Mab episodes the work contains. Fouchécourt, placed at the front of the choir, added a nice touch of piquancy through his tone, and sounded suitably baroque almost with his excited recounting of cannonades, drums and trumpets.


Part two saw the contrast of Romeo alone in desolation vividly realized through the blending of violins, horn and rich lower strings, with distant music (played with wonderful sensitivity) leading to the grandest of all grand balls. The first of several out and out orchestral showpieces in a score that also can wear its brilliance lightly, the ball music was forthright, no holes barred playing, yet not at the expense of textural detailing. The brass again led in the building of this, supported thought the string range, with the oboes riding above it all.


The off-stage chorus in part three made use of the gallery to create a sense of space between themselves and the orchestra, which might have succeeded more had they not all but covered the players below. Whilst the effect aimed for was readily apparent the result was marred to large degree by the hall’s reverberant acoustic. However, the extended orchestral passage that followed highlighted again the key role that violi and celli play in Berlioz’ orchestration.


The Queen Mab scherzo, (part four) arguably the works most famous passage, was not the out-and-out orchestral showpiece that some conductors make it. Rather, it integrated into the whole with pizzicato string playing and sure touch to wear its showy qualities with a lightness of touch.  Juliet’s funeral cortège (part five), used the full choir and sought to make the most of four brief lines of text, with touching use of the words ‘expirée’ and ‘adorée’ particularly. The difficulties of the sotto-voce cross-part writing were deftly handled over the celli.


Romeo at Juliet’s tomb, part six, was striking for the daring nature of the orchestration, and the playing of it. Precisely this music that comes to mind when reading Berlioz’ denunciation of contemporary detractors as ‘routineers and the deaf’, for there is nothing routine about it. With lower woodwind over repetitious timpani, brass over bassi, violins set against brass contrapuntally and the telling use of pauses that carry equal weight to the notes, the scene is desolation, transmuted to joy and death.


As a balance to the opening part in terms of length and some extents structure, the finale resolves the episodic narrative and afforded Berlioz his Beethoven homage choral ending. With a twist of artistic licence Friar Laurence recounts the main narrative elements to the assembled crowds; both families represented chorally, a move that allows further possibilities for elaborate writing. Aside from show however Berlioz also had his dramatic wits about him with the Friar’s shock announcement that he secretly married the young lovers. In this, and largely through John Relyea’s impassioned, forthright delivery, it is here that the symphony came closest to opera.


The reconcilement that ensued at the Friar’s urging proved the capstone in choral terms to a wholly glorious, uplifting evening – and showed that even Berlioz would have been hard pushed to achieve such exhilaration without the inspiration words can give.



Evan Dickerson

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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)