The RSNO’s Naked Classics series continues to draw sizeable crowds, and it’s not difficult to see why. A single work is dissected and then, after the interval, performed. Admirably, even the analytical first half opens with music; a passage from the piece at hand is played before the presenter takes the stage.

Thomas Søndergård © Ole Kaland
Thomas Søndergård
© Ole Kaland

Paul Rissmann continues to impress in this role. He embodies all the qualities required in a communicative venture such as this: thorough and lightly worn knowledge of subject, humour, slick control of the very attractive on-screen graphics above the orchestra, and enthusiasm for both the piece and the musicians who bring the illustrations to life – especially those singled out for special attention. In many cases this involves conversation. Thomas Søndergård, who has conducted three of the four Naked Classics events I have attended, always seems delighted to chat. In this particular case, he was keen to stress how clearly Berlioz’s intentions are expressed. Consideration of the score of his Symphonie fantastique (1830) is pretty much enough to inform interpretation without the necessity of lengthy reflection.

Principal timpanist Martin Gibson spoke again this evening, specifically about the innovative scoring, requiring seven timpani (two was still the norm at this point in musical history). Four players are required to execute the chords which augur bad weather in the pastoral third movement. He also mentioned how detailed Berlioz was in his direction as to which kind of sticks were to be used. Our attention directed to that corner of the stage, we were much more likely to notice the impressively nifty cross-hands work during the performance.

Although Berlioz was unkind about the sound of the bassoon in his Grand traité d’instrumentation et d’orchestration modernes (“Treatise on Instrumentation”), he was sufficiently keen on their contribution to employ four as opposed to the usual two. The point raised, it was incumbent on the section to come to the front of the stage to illustrate their breath-denying, lengthy passage in the final movement, “Songe d’une nuit du sabbat” (“Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath”). In addition to being a fun moment, it was impressive to see these four players nail this Olympian passage.

Perhaps the most helpful use of the graphics is to show the musical notation of themes being explored. This was particularly useful in this symphony, as the entire work is built on on an “idée fixe” (“fixed idea”) and seeing the notation really helps to appreciate the transformations undergone. The most striking of these is its syncopated metamorphosis to become the “witches’ theme” in the finale. At the same time the brass intone the “Dies irae” theme, with added gravitas supplied by bells. The ingenious contrapuntal combination of these two grim themes lends the movement exactly the crazed momentum of the narcotics-fuelled dream depicted. To illustrate this, each section of the orchestra stood, Glen Miller-style, as the theme scurried through their ranks.

Both this and the preceding “Marche au supplice” (“March to the Scaffold”) require moments of dread and who better to supply that than the huge forces in the orchestra’s back row: five horns, four trumpets, three trombones, and two tubas. In both illustration and later performance, these sections were quite thrilling. This is more than a question of sheer volume – articulation and ensemble were outstanding.

On a more delicate front, I was very impressed at Katy MacKintosh’s off-stage oboe in the third movement “Scène au champs” (“Scene in the country”). The fact that, out of earshot of the orchestra, she was relying on a small monitor to follow Søndergård’s beat rendered this delicate moment all the more impressive.

My attendance at this Naked Classics event differed from previous visits. Previously, I’d gone in hope of deeper knowledge of the already familiar. Here I was hoping to embrace a piece which somehow had never caught my ear. Would I be won round? If not, it would certainly not be the fault of the orchestra. In addition to the joyful manner in which they approach this “outreach” kind of event, their performance was faultless and, in places, gripping. Certainly, my attention was held in the last two movements, and snatches of the first three I found lovely. I found myself admiring Berlioz: for audacious orchestral innovation, and for achieving this level of skill at the age of 26, having begun his much-discouraged musical studies aged 12.

However, admiration is not the same as loving the piece and my attention wandered during various moments of the first three movements. Imagine if I’d been Harriet Smithson, the object of Berlioz’s desires whom he hoped to win over at the work’s première. Nevertheless, I’m very glad I attended and am open to persuasion on this piece. Certainly the audience appreciated the spirited performance, as did I, and there was a very vocal and warm-hearted response.