Shakespeare and Cervantes are both renowned as giants of the Western literary canon, but they have something else in common: the day of their death: 23rd April 1616. 400 years later, and bookshops around Barcelona are bursting at the seams with works by both authors in the run-up to this momentous anniversary. This is no accident: the date coincides rather neatly with St George’s Day, one of the most important festivals in the Catalan calendar. Sant Jordi, as he is known here, is the patron saint of Catalonia, and it is customary to give a book or a rose to your sweetheart to mark the occasion. Think Valentine’s Day and World Book Day rolled into one – England should take note!

Josep Pons © Igor Cortadellas
Josep Pons
© Igor Cortadellas
This celebration of romance was fêted on Saturday by the Orquestra Simfònica del Gran Teatre del Liceu and Josep Pons with a concert themed around the ultimate story of love in literature: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Berlioz and Bernstein were on the menu, but any fears that this would prove to be a gratuitous ‘greatest hits’ affair were put to rest by a spirited, heartfelt performance.

Romeo and Juliet is as much a tragedy as it is a romance, and even in the most sublime moments, the sadness that underpins the love of the young pair was tangible. A sense of foreboding from the woodwinds that opened Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy-Overture set the scene for bitingly tight playing during the Montague and Capulet theme, with its battles between winds and strings. However, the love theme, so exquisitely introduced by the cor anglais, limped rather than glided at points because of pizzicati in the lower strings that were, frustratingly, never quite together. Soaring horns, blaring trumpets and whirling violins took over, seething and churning towards the most harrowing bar of the piece: a hair-raising G-sharp bellow from the low voices, with a murderous crash on the second beat.

No less effective were the devastatingly huge brass chords that begin Prokofiev’s Suite no. 1 from his ballet, juxtaposed perfectly with almost imperceptible strings. A surprisingly raw interpretation of “Montagues and Capulets”, with its pulsating brass motor and dramatic violin arpeggios, succeeded in lifting this music away from the cliché it has become saddled with. Ghostly flutes and clarinets in the quieter section proved the first of many wonderful woodwind moments, in particular the warm bassoon as the voice of Friar Laurence. Prokofiev’s inspired orchestration was brought to the fore in “The Death of Tybalt”, a frenzied romp that showcased an amazingly mechanical violin section in perpetual motion.

I was truly delighted by the Love Scene from Berlioz’s symphonie dramatique. The soothing melodies oozed romance, yet were never overly soppy, instead giving a tender depiction of what it is to be young and in love. There was humour, too: I imagined the pair tiptoeing round a palace garden trying to avoid being spotted; and increasingly excited gasps from the violins came to a climax, followed by a sigh… not difficult to interpret. This evocative playing created an oasis of timeless serenity that almost transcended the inevitable tragedy of the ending.

Finger-snapping into an effortlessly cool “Prologue” to Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, the orchestra succeeded in transporting the gilded interior of the Liceu to a New York back alley – no mean feat. Here, brass and percussion were the stars, and made up for their absence in the Berlioz, with sneaky swung melodies in mallet percussion and easy-going tuba contrasting nicely with the syncopated agitation in the drumkit and trumpets. Piano, cellos and basses ramped up the tension with a sharply-accented ostinato that gradually built towards the piercing police whistle – what a noise!

“Somewhere” was played perfectly nicely, but all were waiting for the Mambo, and none more so than the players. The sheer joy emanating from the cellists and bassists was just as catchy as Bernstein’s bass-lines, which they played with such enthusiasm, strings snapping against fingerboards and scrolls swaying. As much as I enjoyed watching them, I confess that I was extremely jealous not to be up there with them. Not to be outdone, the violists hoisted their instruments skyward during the first shout of “Mambo!”. Alas, the violins’ attempt at joining in the second time round was rather lacklustre in comparison…

This immensely fun big band sound meant that the final orchestral crash, delivered at ear-shattering volume after an intense build through “Cool Fugue”, was really quite distressing. Aching strings and dissonant oboes were interrupted by ominous bass notes, allowing the unease to filter through until almost the very end, despite the beauty of the melodies. The upper voices held their ground, and their last, sweet chord lingered in the silence, as a nod to the love of the star-cross’d pair that, in the end, conquered all.