In one of several (pretty outrageous) notes to conductors in the score of his Roméo et Juliette, Berlioz states that “the average listener has no imagination” and, as a result of this, the sixth movement of the work should be cut in 99 per cent of performances. Thankfully, no music was missing from this performance of the work by the Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen, which opened their 2013/14 season, though some fussy lighting from David Holmes suggested they, too, felt the audience couldn’t deal with the music solely on its own terms.
Berlioz’s dramatic symphony presents huge challenges to any chorus, and whilst there were moments of instability and imprecision – particularly in the fiendishly highly off-stage male chorus which opens the “Scene d’amour” – there was also plenty for the Philharmonia Chorus to be proud of. In the Prologue, a small semi-chorus made up of young singers brought drama to their recitative-like passages. At times they seemed underpowered, but they always displayed musical understanding, relishing the pungent suspensions at the sigh of “Hélas!”
Some of the most exciting playing of the evening came in the purely orchestral second movement, where Salonen proved himself yet again to be a master of pacing. The wild dance of the “Grande fête chez Capulet” was set up perfectly and each of the subsequent gear-changes was exhilarating, particularly the manic rising sequences in the strings towards the end.
In contrast, the “Scène d’amour” which followed never really achieved its full potential; the opening felt rushed, with throwaway violin figuration and a lack of tenderness. Salonen did draw intensely expressive playing from the strings – squeezing every last drop of tone from the cellos in their statements of the love theme – though later his rubato seemed overly fussy. Whilst dynamic contrasts were well handled, if more risks had been taken in the quieter moments these contrasts would have been even more vivid.
After a slightly pedestrian start, the Queen Mab scherzo really came alive in the Allegretto section with its ghostly string harmonics. Impressive, too, was the clarity and drive Salonen brought to the unbelievably inventive passage towards the movement’s end, which seemed to prefigure minimalism in its chugging rhythms, raucous horn and bassoon notes, high, sparkling harps and antique cymbals.
Earlier, tenor Paul Groves – not helped by some shaky playing in the winds – had made heavy work of his frantic patter describing Mab’s exploits – tripping over words and never really establishing the charisma that the music needed. With her communicative delivery and sensitive word-painting mezzo Christianne Stotijin fared much better, establishing an intimate rapport with the accompanying harpist.
Things really took off in “Romeo at the Tomb of the Capulets” with muscular strings and incisive brass. The following “Invocation” featured some incredibly sensitive clarinet playing from guest principal Matthew Hunt, whose impressive tonal range made his exposed unaccompanied solo one of the concert’s highlights.
In the Finale, the Philharmonia Chorus seemed at its most secure and rehearsed. Gerald Finley brought gravity and pathos to the Air before the Salonen brought everything together in a final chorus of impressive grandeur.