Michael Tilson Thomas first conducted the London Symphony Orchestra 50 years ago, was its Principal Conductor for a spell, and is now Conductor Laureate. This was the first of two concerts to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his debut. He has form (in the best sense) in Berlioz, so to turn to the Frenchman – another anniversary boy (he died in 1869) - and especially to his great hybrid Romeo and Juliet, was an inspired choice. It received a pretty inspired performance.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the LSO
© Kevin Leighton

The opening fugue was taken fast enough to have the strings scurrying rather at first, but the tempo gripped with subsequent entries, right up until the imposing intervention of the Prince from the heavy brass. The Guildhall singers sounded luxury casting for the Petit Choeur in the Prologue, with their fine blend. In the ensuing Strophes on first love, Alice Coote, positioned just in front of the two accompanying harps, made that seemingly prosaic passage truly eloquent with her noble tone, poised line and clear French – the best singing of the night. The cello obbligato for the second verse was admired at the 1839 premiere and it was delightful here too.

American tenor Nicholas Phan made the most of his short “Queen Mab” Scherzetto, airy in tone and fast and light in articulation. The great oboe solo of the larghetto espressivo was exquisitely done by Olivier Stankiewicz and its augmentation for the “reunion of themes” was stirring indeed. The great arching melodies of the love scene were superbly phrased by Tilson Thomas, the rubato so flexible that the strings seemed almost to breathe with him. He lingered touchingly towards the end of that sublime adagio, as reluctant to take his leave of the dream of love as Juliet was – “Goodnight! Parting is such sweet sorrow”.

Juliet’s funeral procession was all the more touching for that memory, the cries of “Jetez des fleurs” etched in nicely by the LSO chorus. The men of the chorus missed the sense of a summer night’s distant revels in their departing “tra la la’s” but that was because they stayed on stage – it's perhaps difficult to see how sixty men could have done otherwise. Their fighting passage in the finale was belligerent in the right way and Nicolas Courjal’s Friar Lawrence led them to reconciliation with singing of great dignity, even though his tone is not quite as tightly focussed as some basses. The orchestra was magnificent throughout, with a Queen Mab scherzo of hair-trigger responses as Berlioz’s fabulous orchestration dazzled with kaleidoscopic brilliance. The full forces, choral and orchestral, made a noble blaze to crown the finale.

A final quibble. The LSO programme notes are among the best around and not just because they are free. But David Cairns’ note, used for Gergiev’s LSO performance and probably Colin Davis’s before that, for all its authority, is more a general essay than a guide through the work for the novice. My companion soon gave up on the attempt to follow the narrative and just listened.