The 150th anniversary year of the death of Hector Berlioz has only just begun, yet his music seems to be everywhere at the moment, even popping up in the much-lauded Mexican arthouse film Roma. This concert was part of Berlioz – The Ultimate Romantic, a whole weekend of live performances and linked programming on BBC Radio 3. Symphonie Fantastique, the composer’s most famous work concerned his infatuation with Harriet Smithson, yet the path to their marriage was far from smooth. Lélio is an extraordinary autobiographical work, a delirious reaction to what actually happened as the Witches’ Sabbath chords faded at the end of the symphony’s first performance. The work is seldom performed so attracted a large Sunday afternoon audience in Glasgow City Halls.

Neal Davies © Gerard Collett
Neal Davies
© Gerard Collett

It was fitting that the live contribution from Scotland featured Berlioz’s Overture: Waverley, inspired by Walter Scott. Starting quietly, the generous warmth of the string sound with rich melodies rising from the centrally placed cellos evoked Scott’s “Dreams of Love”, the four bassoons adding a depth of richness to the orchestration. The dream faded as the music picked up, marching brightly along with choppy chords, conductor Pascal Rophé in his element as the music strutted with romantic chivalry.

La Morte de Cléopâtre was composed to P.A. Vieillard’s set text as Berlioz’s entry to the French Institute’s coveted Prix de Rome. The classical quasi-operatic death scene with Shakespearian resonances appealed to the composer who illustrated the changing moods of the piece with rich dynamic orchestration and a demanding mezzo-soprano part. Karen Cargill gave an astonishing and animated performance, completely inhabiting her character as the dying Cleopatra, reflecting on her life with brave nobility. Rophé painted each episode vividly, building and releasing tension, from sombre brass with bass pizzicatos to blazing drama, but all eyes and ears were on Cargill, terrifying in her imperious rage against death, successfully tackling the extreme demands of range and instant dynamic changes. The piece did not win the prize as it unnerved the conservative judging panel, but with Cargill and Rophé in charge, history might well have been different.

Even although Symphonie Fantastique was about Berlioz’s pursuit of his beloved, the composer’s attentions were stolen by charming pianist Camille Moke to whom he became engaged. Berlioz had finally won the Prix de Rome which required him to study there for two years. Hearing nothing from Camille, he headed back to France learning en route that she was engaged to someone else. Lélio, ou Le retour à la vie is an autobiographical account of the composer’s journey as murderous thoughts slowly give way to a resignation to rededicate his life to art. The piece itself is a mad jumble of previous musical ideas and songs, linked by a narrator, actor Samuel West, giving voice to the composer’s personal crisis: “I am still alive” he begins. He hears his friend Horatio singing “The Fisherman”, tenor Andrew Tortise accompanied by Lynda Cochrane’s piano, as the idée fixe theme makes an appearance in the strings between verses. He hears an imaginary “Chorus of Shades”, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus under their new director Aidan Oliver filling the hall with ominous pictures of darkness, hunger and death. Tenors and basses were joined by bass-baritone Neal Davies in a swaggering “Brigand’s Song” delivered with gusto. The composer’s mood turned with tenor Sam Furness giving a moving and heartfelt “Song of Happiness”, with Helen Thomson’s golden harp and strings giving way to “The Aeolian Harp”, a quiet orchestral monologue with clarinettist Yann Ghiro’s beautiful pianissimos floating through the hall.

Finally, the narrator decides to snap out of his gloom and directs the players to pay attention to their conductor in a “Fantasy on Shakespeare’s Tempest”, a piano for four hands, flute and piccolo setting the scene as the chorus, now singing in Italian, invoke Aerial, Caliban and Prospero, starting quietly and building with rich majesty to a dramatic and heroic flourish. The piece, although sparked by Camille Moke’s fickleness, is really all about Harriet Smithson as her theme drifted through the final dialogue.

Although we can sympathise with Berlioz’ state of mind, it was a little hard to warm to Lélio and the florid spoken musings as we witnessed the personal torture of an artist refocussing his life. Even so, this concert was a wonderful chance to hear the music in a work fallen out of repertoire, given enthusiastic and committed treatment by the performers.

****1