Before this extremely well-attended concert got underway, the band’s MD, David Whelton, took to the platform to offer not just a welcome, but also impart the encouraging news that the orchestra’s Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, had just this afternoon signed an extension of his contract with them to the end of the 2016/17 season. At a time of very jittery musical chairs elsewhere in the world of top-ranking orchestras, it’s a relief to know that the Philharmonia, which most certainly belongs in this select grouping, will be safe and sound for the foreseeable future. Not that I have always thought Salonen’s performances constituted the last word in either insight or inspiration: too much core repertory for this band – Brahms, Beethoven – goes for very little under his baton. But he’s plainly an inspirational leader, and equally adroit at the behind-the-scenes, long-term business of orchestral training and the maintaining of standards. Moreover, give him a technically tricky score and he’s in his element, rather like von Dohnanyi, his immediate Philharmonia predecessor. Indeed, after 30 years this very month conducting them, Salonen seems more than ever to raise his musical game significantly when confronted by something slightly off the beaten track, or which makes difficult demands on its players.
Which brings us to Berlioz. His imagination ran so far ahead of his time that, on occasions, it even outran the composer himself, resulting in awkward and practically unwieldy hybrids such as this symphonic cantata with operatic overtones, with which the Philharmonia chose very bravely to open its 2013/14 season on the South Bank. To get the major bellyaching out of the way first, I can’t say that giving the piece the whole recent Gurrelieder treatment – blacked-out hall, variable lighting plot by David Holmes both within and between movements, individual desk-lights for the orchestra and score lights for the chorus - is a particularly good idea. Moody lighting alone will not help to dramatise the undramatisable. Nor is the use of tiny surtitles in dark, blood red helpful, since, as any self-respecting Art Historian could tell you, they are bound to be unreadable at low light levels due to the ineluctable operation of the Purkinje Effect, whereby reds start to vanish and recede as photopic vision fades, whilst the blue-green end of the spectrum starts to glow and advance as scotopic vision kicks in (it’s all down to the differing receptivities of the cones and rods at the back of the eye, and is why all Virgin Mary altarpieces painted for dark, candle-lit churches dress her in blue rather than red. Did you really think the Bible had something to say about the colour of her drag?). Nor did I care for the yawning great gaps between most of the work’s seven movements, necessary perhaps twice for a modicum of to-ing and fro-ing, but encouraging a clearly unfamiliar audience to clap tentatively and annoyingly persistently at all points west.
The 1838 work itself is, in any meaningful sense, beyond bizarre, wastefully employing three soloists – mezzo, tenor and bass – the first two of which only sing in the first movement, and the third only in the last (Beethoven’s 9th doubtless the unfortunate, ill-adapted exemplar here). With the exception of the largely choral first, fifth and seventh movements, the work is otherwise almost entirely orchestral in conception and execution. In a running time of 95’, the soloists perform for less than 30’, and excepting the bass at the end – who incarnates Frère Laurent, though with none of his actual words and little of his function in the original play – neither of the others embodies a character in the drama at all, merely instead offering a kind of commentary on the whole piece seen in potted overview all dispatched within the opening 19’. The text of all this is by the Bardolatrous Berlioz himself, though it would be consoling to think that the absolute depths of literary bathos reached with the mezzo’s sudden bosom-clutching avowal during the Strophes “Ou ne seriez-vous point, dans notre exil mortel/ Cette poésie elle-même/ Dont Shakespeare lui seul eut le secret suprême/ Et qu’il remporta dans le ciel!” had more to do with the versifying “skills” of Emile Deschamps, constituting as it does mortifyingly dreadful gush, school of E.J Thribb.
The unenviable task of singing this terrible textual trash, quite the worst drivelling doggerel Berlioz ever set, fell tonight to Christianne Stotijn of whom many have written glowingly. I’m not much of their number or persuasion, I’m afraid. Having sat through her inadequate Tamerlano at the ROH, and a Das Lied von der Erde of ear-bruising rough-and-readiness, I was in fact expecting the worst. In the event, by the expedient of keeping the voice very reined-in and on minimal support, something of tonal beauty and technical address did indeed come across. But the instant the least pressure is applied, as in the passage beginning “Quel art!” (more cringe-making sucking-up to the divine Shakespeare) the voice loses quality, and purity of tone is swallowed up in a kind of gargly black-hole that bends pitch uncomfortably. As for poor Paul Groves, who is assiduously working his way through Berlioz’s ungrateful tenor oeuvre, he was reduced to gabbling his account of Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech by Salonen’s insistence on an altogether too mercurial tempo, one which the conductor noticeably did not seek to replicate in the orchestra-only treatment of the same music in the fourth movement, all airy spaciousness personified. And then they were gone for good, together with the twelve choristers – eight men, four women - who’d accompanied them squeezed up against the far left-hand-side of the platform (and thereby off my acoustic arc, on the far left as I was, since they were facing not front, but across the band to the conductor, a piece of nonsense if I ever I saw one).
I packed up worrying about all this during the next three movements, the real heart of the work and all of it – apart from a brief, (for once) magically offstage chorus at the start of the love scene – purely orchestral, not least because the Philharmonia’s playing for this 40-odd minute stretch was simply exquisite, of a degree of refinement and poise, passion and delicacy I would scarcely have dreamed of encountering so early in the season, with the silkiest, most diaphanous string textures, warmly rounded brass and gorgeous winds. Thereafter, another gaping pause whilst the chorus trooped back on, increased by tenfold. If you’ve ever wondered how long it would take around 120 people to file solemnly on stage in semi-pitch darkness, I can tell you: forever. Still, once on, their obsessively monotone chanting of “Jetez les fleurs” – they’re Juliet’s funeral cortège, not a scene you’ll find in Shakespeare at all, but which Berlioz had seen in David Garrick’s adaptation in 1827 that had first fired him with Bardour – achieved the desired hypnotic effect, multiplied exponentially by the increment in their numbers (superbly trained by Stefan Bevier).
After the again purely orchestral sixth movement - a series of startlingly graphic grunts, shrieks and death-rattles as the end of the drama as we have it is effectively rendered like some kind of blow-by-blow film music avant-la-lettre – the seventh introduces Friar Laurence (not Lawrence, as the programme-note writer imagines it to be) sung here by Gerald Finley, magisterial in utterance, faultless in intonation, emission and artistry, but nevertheless rather taxed at both ends of his voice by Berlioz’s characteristic habit of writing to the outer edges of any given range. There are dry patches in his tone, especially up aloft: and nor is he the kind of stentorian force of vocal nature to be able to ride the climaxes towards the end (only José van Dam amongst those I’ve heard ever managed to do that). But it’s a towering sort of performance even so, in decent French, despite the quite ridiculously ramped-up, inauthentic reconciliatory nature of the text at this point, all choral rejoicing (excellently sung). Indeed, it’s a delicious irony that Berlioz should, in part, have been moved to create his work in response to what he publicly castigated as the egregiously un-Shakespearean I Capuleti ed I Montecchi by Bellini which he’d seen in Italy, when his own treatment may have captured the spirit but certainly ignores the whole letter of the play he was supposed to be defending just as badly: whilst poor Bellini was actually blameless in the matter, since his Romeo and Juliet opera – evidently unknown to a carping, ever-Italophobe Berlioz - wasn’t based on Shakespeare’s play at all, but on one by Luigi Scevola, adapted by Felice Romani. There’s a lesson there for all critics, especially professional ones like Berlioz, who really should have known better.