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PROM 25 - Jarrell, Berlioz Beethoven: BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Thierry Fischer, Royal Albert Hall, London, 3.8.2009 (J-PJ)

Les Francs-Juges Overture
Michael Jarell: Sillages
Berlioz: Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale
Beethoven: Symphony No.3 in E flat, ‘Eroica’

As an enthusiast of the new ‘cathedrals’ of the industrial age – factories, railway stations and the like – Berlioz would have approved of the performance of his Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale in the Royal Albert Hall. Originally composed and performed in 1840 for an open air procession and ceremony to commemorate the fallen of the July Revolution a decade earlier, the work benefited from the hall’s huge space and reverberant acoustics. This was the first airing of the Symphonie for 26 years, and Thierry Fischer and the forces of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales gave a performance to remember. Dominated by brass and percussion, the opening Marche Funèbre was suitably stark, with Fischer keeping a tight rein on the tempo. The tension relaxed in the central Oraison, with it’s plaintive trombone soliloquy – sympathetically and flawlessly played by Donal Bannister. The final Apothéose proved suitably rousing, although the omission of the chorus for the last 60 bars slightly lessened the sense of haunting finality.

Fischer had already opened the concert with an insightful account of Berlioz’s overture to his early opera Les Francs-Juges. The opening brass and percussion fanfares and the lively but increasingly complex violin theme clearly link this work to Berlioz’s later output, including the Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale. Some initial imbalance between the brass, woodwind and strings aside, this was a satisfying performance.

Sandwiched between the two Berlioz works lay the world premiere of a revision by Swiss composer Michael Jarrell of his Sillages (Trials). The first movement, first performed in 2005, is a reworking of Jarrell’s 1988 Congruences. The second movement is entirely new, and features extended solo and ensemble passages for flute, oboe and clarinet. The main interest of the first movement is the skilful way in which Jarrell recreated the computer parts of the original Congruences for full orchestra. In the second section, the solo instruments are given much more prominence, although their lack of individual identity give the piece the overall effect of an extended cadenza rather than a triple concerto. Exceptionally well played by the soloists and orchestra, Sillages nevertheless seemed to lack focus and direction.

The final third of the concert was taken up by Beethoven's ‘Eroica’ Symphony. With its ‘heroic’ and revolutionary connotations, the symphony has clear links musically and historically with Berlioz. Fischer and the BBCNOW provided a fully charged reading of what could have been an anti-climax. The first movement was firmly paced, although it didn’t quite reach the heights of heroic grandeur. The ensuing funeral march had a nimbler tempo than usual, lending it a fitting sense of classical grace. The wit of the scherzo was initially marred by a muddled entry of the trio of horns, but after they had quickly rallied, the movement became much more cohesive. The complex finale was well handled, particularly in the intricate fugal sections. The vitality of the final coda brought the symphony bounding to a close and drew an appreciative response from the audience. 

John-Pierre Joyce


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