A few weeks ago, Daniel Harding announced he was taking a sabbatical: after stepping down from his post as Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris, he would take a year off to fly commercial jets. Seeing him conduct, you can well imagine he’d be a good fit for the role. At this performance of Berlioz’ grand and brilliant Roméo et Juliette, he was a presence of trim authority: no movement superfluous, no exaggeration, a clear-eyed sense of trajectory. He’s just the sort of person you want at the helm of this big genre-crossing jumbo of a piece – whose seven movements coincidentally last about as long as your average flight from Paris to Berlin.

Gijs Leenaars, Shenyang, Andrew Staples, Daniel Harding and Kate Lindsey © Stephan Rabold
Gijs Leenaars, Shenyang, Andrew Staples, Daniel Harding and Kate Lindsey
© Stephan Rabold

The British conductor has made something of a speciality of Berlioz’ Symphonie dramatique, and who can blame him? It’s a work of characteristically breathtaking invention and imagination – an aesthetic experiment that pushes music to its expressive limits on the one hand, a virtuoso showcase of compositional craft and originality on the other. It resolutely treads its own path, picking and choosing its inspirations from episodes in Shakespeare’s play and showing a typically Berliozian disregard for practicality. Three vocal soloists are used sparingly and sporadically, and most of the key moments in the drama are conveyed wordlessly by the orchestra alone – the exquisite love scene, for example, or the scene at the Capulets’ tomb.

Across the work’s whole duration Harding was in firm control, and the Berliner Philharmoniker responded with playing – right from the taut fugato of the opening – that was fiercely concentrated and virtuosic. The opening chorus was superbly stage managed, too, with a selection of singers from the Rundfunkchor Berlin filing solemnly along in front of the orchestra to address us directly and honestly. In a similarly sensitive touch, the whole chorus later processed into their seats behind to accompany the steady progress of Juliette’s funeral convoy in the orchestra, bassoons and cor anglais chanting in doleful unison.

Kate Lindsey, singing with firm rich tone, brought soulful intensity to the Strophes, and an airy-toned Andrew Staples was quick-witted in the Queen Mab Scherzetto. At the other end of the evening, Chinese bass-baritone Shenyang (12 years on from his triumph at Cardiff Singer of the World) was superb in Friar Laurence’s solemn proclamations in the long final movement: a figure of sonorous, noble authority, singing with a rich, smooth voice I could listen to all day.

But most of the action and interest is in the orchestra, and there were no disappointments here, even if Harding’s approach – intelligent and controlled – occasionally leaves one wanting more warmth and luxuriousness in the sound. Nevertheless, Romeo’s scene alone was often breathtakingly beautiful, with the conductor controlling the music’s gentle swell of passion and sadness superbly – crowned by a supremely moving and eloquent solo from oboist Jonathan Kelly – before ushering in the wild Capulet party. There were similar qualities in the Love Scene, patiently and lovingly unfurled, the violins exchanging muted sweet nothings before the cellos sang out their big melody with unbridled passion.

The Scherzo flitted and flew around with the lightest of touches, the uncanny gossamer harmonics of the central section only the most striking of Berlioz’ effects, all realised with the utmost skill. But it was perhaps the composer’s more visceral tone painting, where instruments are made to converse, declare and exclaim, that brought out the very finest playing. The sheer unanimity of the violins’ shocked, incredulous outbursts at the Capulets’ tomb was shattering, Andreas Ottensamer’s almost imperceptible clarinet whisperings as Juliet awakened heartbreaking. After such musical poetry, that final movement couldn’t help feel a little prosaic, but offered a sturdy, rousing conclusion to a very fine performance.

****1