The increasing internationalization of orchestral sound has arguably robbed many an orchestra of its distinctive colour and flavour. It's difficult to decipher whether this uniformity of sound has been reached because of an era of jet-setting conductors or decades of recordings saturating the market. Thank goodness for period instrument groups like La Chambre Philharmonique whose playing bursts with local colour to bring scores to life. The trio of Berlioz works in this concert was infused with pungent Gallic flavours, served with a side dish of risk-taking; not every risk paid off, but there were thrills aplenty on the way.

La Chambre Philharmonique and Emmanuel Krivine © IMG Artists
La Chambre Philharmonique and Emmanuel Krivine
© IMG Artists

Cadogan Hall is a perfect venue for such period instrument orchestras; it is too small either in stage space or acoustic to accommodate a full symphony orchestra comfortably. Playing with just 32 strings allowed the woodwinds plenty of opportunity to take centre-stage, breezing their way through the overture to Béatrice and Bénédict which opened the programme. Berlioz’s was the first musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and the sparkling curtain-raiser combines a couple of motifs from later in the opera. Emmanuel Krivine kept the textures light and airy and there was a vibrant sheen to the string sound.

Michèle Losier was the soloist in the song cycle Les nuits d’été, Berlioz’s setting of six poems by Théophile Gautier. Losier has a lighter mezzo than is sometimes heard in this cycle – and the opening “Villanelle” found her vibrato a little fluttery – but she was still capable of burnished mahogany colours in songs like the melancholy “Sur les lagunes”. In “Le spectre de la rose”, Krivine allowed her to be very free with rubato and the size of the hall meant that she could scale down her mezzo to a true pianissimo. Her diction and engagement with the text were superb. The chief delight of this Nuits d’été, however, was in the fabulous woodwind contributions: the line in “Au cimitière” which runs “Passes in a ray of trembling light, veiled in white” was accompanied by the most animated flecks of woodwind light. The chortling clarinets and bassoons in “L’île inconnue” were a delight.

Indeed, the four bassoons were the heroes of the evening, whether burbling with mirth in “L’île inconnue” or providing a grumbling commentary on the way to the scaffold or cackling at the witches’ sabbath in the Symphonie fantastique, they produced a vibrant rasping sound, as ripe as oozing Camembert.

Period instrument orchestras have been tackling Berlioz’s Symphonie for decades now and several recordings (of various degrees of success) exist, but I have never heard it so excitingly performed ‘in the flesh’ as here. Berlioz depicts the drug-induced hallucinations of an artist infatuated with his Beloved, who appears as an idée fixe running though each movement. Although the strings were on the lean and lithe side, Krivine still coaxed this theme out warmly, teasing the rubato in “Un bal” before the waltz swirled across the platform. Two pairs of Erard harps were placed antiphonally, their delicate timbre tickling the ears. String intonation was sometimes a little queasy, but cellos and basses were at their sinister best growling the Dies irae in the finale. Cor anglais and off-stage oboe (well placed in the gallery above the platform, but unseen) both struck a deliberately rustic tone, while four timpanists conjured up a threatening storm at the end of the pastoral scene.

A serpent
A serpent

Joy of joys, we were also treated to a pair of ophicleides in the “March to the Scaffold” plus a serpent joining in the revelries of the witches’ sabbath. Krivine encouraged his string players to play sul ponticello, producing an eerie timbre, while among the squealing woodwinds, the E flat clarinets were suitably hysterical in tone. Ensemble wasn’t always perfect, with entries occasionally a little smudged, but the spirit behind the music-making was infectious. I was particularly taken by the commitment and enthusiastic playing of one of the back-desk cellists, eyes glued to her conductor and regularly beaming with delight. The enthusiasm of the playing was infectious. Only a sense of English reserve – and the sure knowledge that I’d get to put my thoughts into words later – kept me from leaping to my feet at the demonic conclusion.

*****