Although its title conjures an image of breezy, blissful and carefree times, Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’été is really a dark night of the soul. In setting six poems by Théophile Gautier for the female voice, the composer ponders love, loss and the terror of the spectral world with the same unflinching depth you also find in grander works like La Damnation de Faust and Symphonie fantastique. Although the songs are not distinctly related, they create a showcase for a soloist with keen dramatic instincts. Backed by the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Sir Mark Elder, the fine French mezzo Stephanie d’Oustrac met the work’s challenges with elegance and skill.

Sir Mark Elder conducts the Antwerp Symphony
© Vincent Callot | Antwerp Symphony Orchestra

D’Oustrac’s sound is neither opulent nor especially glamorous, but her exquisitely phrased elocution and bell-like, vibrato-free tone suit the music ideally. She was flirty and playful in the opening Villanelle, the cycle’s one moment of levity, a perfect match for the gossamer winds and richly textured string sound that Elder summoned from the orchestra. Le Spectre de la rose found a completely different artist: intense almost to the point of possession, building in fervor up to the ecstatic climax, which d’Oustrac dispatched with euphoric abandon. Although d’Oustrac is often content to let the music tell the story, she deploys gesture when needed – she hunched and shivered effectively in Au cimetière, leaving no doubt the speaker had reached a point of no return. Throughout the cycle’s 30-minute duration, Elder drew refined, well-blended playing that honored the composer’s Romantic sweep without turning lachrymose.

Stéphanie d'Oustrac
© Vincent Callot | Antwerp Symphony Orchestra

Elder capped the concert with Elgar’s Enigma Variations, another sustained showcase piece that riveted the listener anew. Each conductor puts his or her particular stamp on this familiar work – from Bernstein’s hypnotic slowness to Rattle’s pomp and circumstance, to Davis’ almost chamber-like quietude – and Elder is no different. The large moments are as you might expect: Nimrod rises gradually to a heart-stopping eloquence, while E.D.U. captures the composer’s own humor, grandstanding and creative fervor. Each variation was as vividly colored as the hits, and Elder’s focus in some of the shorter pieces was to isolate and highlight individual voices within the orchestra. The clarinet glided above the line in H.D.S-P.; the cello intoned mournfully in B.G.N.; the earthy viola claimed its rightful place in Ysobel, supported by bassoons. As Elgar did for his friends, Elder gave these instruments their own moment in the spotlight.

The Antwerp Symphony Orchestra in the Queen Elisabeth Hall
© Vincent Callot | Antwerp Symphony Orchestra

This performance was reviewed from the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra video stream