The coda to Juliet's "Convoi funèbre" crystallised all that was exceptional about this performance of Berlioz's symphonie dramatique. When the violins and flutes of the BBC Symphony Orchestra combined to create the sound of a tolling bell, a spell was cast. In most performances of Roméo et Juliette this passage sounds like what it is: two orchestral sections in unison; but here Sir Andrew Davis crafted a moment of realism that wrought shivers. There was, I swear, a real bell out in the misty distance. This was just one of several magical revelations that distinguished a gripping account of what is, despite a few patchy episodes that the composer's naysayers regularly seize upon, an inspired fusion of melodic lustre, symphonic depth and pure musical drama.
Roméo et Juliette is, famously, a hybrid composition: a series of impressions based on Shakespeare's play, sandwiched between two idiosyncratic cantatas. In the first of the latter a semi-chorus, mezzo-soprano (Michèle Losier) and tenor (Samuel Boden in a brief but luxuriant contribution) summarise the drama to come; in the second, as a dramatic climax to the whole work, the surviving characters (in the form of a large chorus and a bass soloist) join forces to reflect upon what has occurred.
The imaginary curtain opened on an energised Allegro fugato in which busy strings evoked a stage teeming with Veronese colour, only to be interrupted by the arrival in jagged, assertive brass phrases of the warring Montagues and Capulets. The balefulness of this transition was as heavy-laden as the opening had been febrile, and it heralded the unfolding of a deeply considered performance. In Losier's elegant partnership with Sioned Williams' harp, even the pallid mezzo "Strophes" came to life.
The splendour of Roméo et Juliette lies in its inner movements, five symphonic utterances in which Berlioz displays his exceptional technical command and, astonishingly, a harmonic precocity that's flavoured with unmistakable foretastes of Wagnerian ecstasies and Tchaikovskian romances to come. The first of these, "Roméo seul", is a moving tone poem in its own right. Davis' interpretation was meticulous and revelatory – not least in the precise internal colours he created during tuttis, especially the quietest of them. And when, in part three, a semi-chorus of guests took their leave of the ball, they did so with a rare textural enchantment from the Barbican Hall's upper gallery.
Conductor and orchestra revelled in Berlioz's musical kaleidoscope. The scherzo of "La Reine Mab" emerged with a Mendelssohnian patina, while the variegated intensity of "Roméo au tombeau des Capulets" was raw and stark. Even the extended vocal finale, in which the full BBC Symphony Chorus mopped away the tragedy in a long, hectoring episode, hit home as a tireless David Soar brought Friar Laurence to life with dignified resonance. If the start of this 15-minute envoi can feel suspiciously like a tribute to Beethoven's Choral Symphony, by its conclusion Davis and his musicians had led us into the Église des Invalides.
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