The large concert space of the Usher Hall was full on all levels for this performance of Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz performed tonight by Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique and conducted by John Eliot Gardiner.
Much of the music here I was familiar with from recordings, but this was my first live performance of “Symphonie Fantastique” and I now realise not only just how much of the music I have been missing up until now, but also the feeling of it. You really need a live orchestra in front of you to fully appreciate things at times.
This of course is a tale of love to the point of obsession as Berlioz constructs an almost Shakespearian Romeo and Juliet world for himself and the object of his desires – actress (and soon to be wife) Harriet Smithson.
Berlioz creates a musical fantasy land of magical sounds and doomed and tortured love in this work, and introduces for the first time harps to an orchestra to get that sound. The harp is probably my favourite musical sound of all time, so anyone who takes the bold move to include this instrument wins my vote to start with.
Reviewing a musical piece of work like this is always difficult for me, because the music works on different levels for different people, but if the original object of Berlioz was to take an audience into another place and tell a story in music as he did it, then John Eliot Gardiner did that here wonderfully with the orchestra.
We were also after the interval treated to Berlioz’s follow up (well, companion) to Symphonie Fantastique - Lelio. This is actually my first encounter with this work and I may be upsetting a few readers here, but out of the two works, this is my favourite.
For me, the almost abstract or fantasy world of the writer waking up, looking at his life and work from the outside in just works for me. There is also that fusion of classical music with the human voices of Michael Spyres (tenor), Laurent Naouri (bass) and the combined voices of the National Youth Choir of Scotland (Christopher Bell chorus master). We still have John Eliot Gardiner conducting the orchestra - and again the wonderful sound of the harp. All of this is going on as narrator Peter Eyre (as Berlioz) gives us insight into his mind and source material while interacting with singers, orchestra, conductor, and chorus.
There were a few empty seats around me (only a few) for the second half as some people had obviously just stayed for the “Symphonie Fantastique” and that was a shame as “Lelio” helped me understand more of the mind of Berlioz as he wrote the “Symphonie Fantastique” in just a few short months of energetic artistic output.
I will probably upset a lot of people with this comment, but I would love to see these works performed the other way round one day with “Lelio” first and “Symphonie Fantastique” second. I know that is not how they were intended, but getting to know the thoughts of Berlioz before the work itself would make an interesting departure from the norm.
Review By Tom King