Barbican: London Symphony Orchestra: Hector Berlioz

Hector Berlioz  (1803-1869)

Overture Benvenuto Cellini; Death of Cleopatra ( sung by Karen Cargill); Harold in Italy (Antoine Tamestit, viola)

I like Hector Berlioz. I life the small song cycles – especially Les nuits d’ete – I like the Symphonie Fantastique – I like the Trojans. I am less keen on the noisy Grande Messe des morts and Messe Solennelle. Of all those mid nineteenth century French composers – including Auber, Bizet, Gounod and Meyerbeer – I think Berlioz by far the most original and greatest. He could almost more Wangerian than Wagner but never so ponderous. But I am in that happy minority – that blessed band of brothers – who disparage the man who composed the vast Ring Cycle.

That said – although the LSO under Valery Gergiev gave as a wonderful night of music these three pieces are all oddities. The Overture Benvenuto Cellini is something and nothing. The other two pieces are extraordinary compositions without necessarily being easily accessible on a first hearing. The death of cleopatra is an extended cantata for soprano and orchestra. Here we here musical ideas which you can see will be played out of an epic scale in the Trojans. Berlioz was absolutely fascinated by classical mythology and this sombre and haunting piece of music is such a realisation of death by poisoning. We find the queen of Egypt after she has been bitten by the asp musing over life and death until at the very end she fades into history. I happen to love this piece – particularly the opening vocal line but in the orchestration there are depths of feeling and genius of composition brushing easily against one another.Like Benjamin Britten’s last work – the cantata for Janet Baker- this frankly is more like an extended scene from an opera – or even a small opera in itself.Karen Cargill has a magnificent, full,  creamy-toned voice perfectly suited to this piece. She sang it with affecting beauty and musicality. It left us in hushed awe at the end.

Harold in italy – inspired by Byron’s Childe Harolde – is for viola and orchestra and is divided into various movements of which the first – Harold in the mountains is both the longest and quite the most hauntingly beautiful. If someone said to me sum up the Romantic Movement of the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century I would send them of to listen to this. It captures the mountains; the mystery; and their sense of the magnificent and sublime in Nature. Frankly it knocks Mendelssohn’s  Fingal’s Cave into a cocked hat. The viola chases the orchestra over the mountains and there was absolutely wonderful playing by Antoine Tamestit.  I enjoyed the serenade and the Brigands Orgy but the second movement March left me a bit cold.

Great to hear the LSO on top form. This is an anniversary year for Berlioz – so I guess there will be more where this concert came from.





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