Berlioz, and his “Lelio”, given their dues and more by Orchestra Wellington

Orchestra Wellington presents:


BERLIOZ – Symphonie Fantastique Op.14
Lelio, or “A Return to Life” Op.14b

Andrew Laing (Lelio)
Declan Cudd (Horatio)
Daniel O’Connor (Captain)

Orpheus Choir of Wellington
Brent Stewart (music director)
Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday, April 12th, 2019

My first reaction to the news that Orchestra Wellington was planning to give the New Zealand premiere of Hector Berlioz’s  Lelio, or “A return to life” in its properly-ordered place as a sequel to the well-known Symphonie Fantastique was a delightful amalgam of excitement, admiration, incredulity and skepticism regarding the idea. I knew the work from recordings, and it had long seemed to me of the order of something the composer obviously had to “entertain” and get out of his head before progressing onwards to “the next thing” – all more akin to a ritual of private expiation rather than material for a viable public presentation.

I didn’t, however, take into account two things, the first involving the work itself, the extraordinary capacity of Berlioz’s music for generating interest out of its sheer novelty, each part in isolation having its own fascination , but in tandem agglomerating a kind of theatrical through-line entirely of its own, and with idiosyncrasies becoming touch-points! In situ Berlioz’s sheer conviction both fused and propelled the material forwards, in ways that live musical performances often surpass recorded efforts of the same material in sheer spontaneous excitement.

Just as important was the zeal, enthusiasm and energy of the performers giving all of the above the necessary “juice” with which to “fire”. Conductor Marc Taddei was of course at the forefront of the concerted efforts of singers, instrumentalists and actors, as well as choir and orchestra members, bringing about a fruition of their efforts with inspired and unflagging direction. What I’d thought might fatally drag down any stage performance were the spoken sequences, the composer seemingly carried away by his own eloquence in thus anatomising his passions! – but here, a combination of an English translation, judicious editing and fully-committed performance brought those same sequences compellingly to life. With those patches having had their “purple” aspect removed, it suddenly seemed possible that the thing might work!

In “Lelio” the composer’s original stipulation was that the orchestra, chorus and soloists be out of sight on a stage behind a curtain, with only an actor speaking the part of Lelio in front of the curtain before the audience. The six separate pieces that made up the musical fabric of the whole are each  interspersed with a dramatic monologue, after which the curtain is lifted for the “finale”, a Fantasia on Shakespeare’s “Tempest”  for chorus and orchestra. Here, most enterprisingly, mists and atmospheric lighting created a kind of rather more naturalistic curtain for the musicians who, though visible, were most effectively shrouded in mystery. The singers, too, were able to be seen, in each case theatrically lit, with billowing mists heightening the almost Goethean atmosphere of their different evocations. Most pictorial of all was the Brigand Leader, whose swashbuckling aspect and colourful costume, complete with sword, suited his rollicking music to perfection.

The presentation didn’t go as far as following the composer’s instruction to reinforce the “awakening” idea by proceeding straight into Lelio without a break at the end of the Symphonie. Instead, during an interval the stage was reset, with a large couch as the central feature, on which the young artist was cast in a stupor, and behind which the musicians reassembled, as the mists gathered and the strange, eerie lighting was brought into play –  all sufficiently conveying the “do I wake or sleep” ambience required by the composer. As Lelio himself, actor Andrew Laing mesmerically held our attention from his first appearance as the young artist who had “dreamed” the Symphonie Fantastique’s different episodes (that we’d heard in the concert’s “first half” that evening). His monologue describing the dream’s torments gave us the essence of the original, with occasional amendments (checking his cell-phone, for example) and judicious editings supporting and colouring his full-hearted, hypnotic delivery of the words.

After this, each of the different pieces (all sung in French, except for the final chorus) followed their own spoken introductions, beginning with the setting of Goethe’s Ballad Le Pêcheur (The Fisherman) for tenor voice and piano, here beautifully and ardently delivered by Declan Cudd (from my seat I couldn’t tell which of the two wonderfully adroit pianists, Rachel Thomson or Thomas Nikora, was playing here). At one point here the music was interspersed with a poignant, dream-like remnant of the Symphonie’s “idée fixe” the melody associated with the composer’s beloved which appeared in different guises throughout the work.

Then followed  various free-ranging changes of scenario and mood – firstly a magnificent Choeur d’ombres (Chorus of the Shades), inspired by the “ghost” scene in “Hamlet”, and introduced by the brasses with lugubrious, sinister-sounding tones, the Orpheus Choir’s delivery of the words spookily evocative, certain parts reminiscent of the Prince’s invocation to the warring families at the beginning of the composer’s “Romeo and Juliet” Symphony, and everything brought into atmospheric play by the interaction of light, mist and darkness on the stage – wonderful!

The poet then castigated society in general for bringing the lofty ideals of Shakespeare into disrepute, before enjoined all artists to turn their backs on such besmirchment and  become brigands instead – introduced by a vigorous orchestral passage,  baritone Daniel O’Connor looked, sang and acted the part to perfection in the Chanson de Brigands, vigorously exchanging blandishments regarding the life of a brigand with the chorus’s male voices, and moving towards the front of the stage to great theatrical effect, to the strains of tremendously rollicking and abandoned orchestral playing!

Emotions wildly fluctuating, the young poet then imagined far-away music resembling the voice of his beloved, and sank into a reverie, as tenor Declan Cudd and his accompanying harpist Madeleine Crump joined with the orchestra to perform a Chant de bonheur (Song of bliss), the effect positively celestial, the voice again sweet and pure and the harp an ideal blissful companion. From this the poet further conjured up the idea of an Aeolian Harp strung across the branches of an oak tree besides his grave, a tree  through whose branches the wind would sound the ongoing strains of his dying happiness in the arms of his beloved – the tremulous sounds that emanated from the strings and a solo clarinet were breathtaking in their evocation of the beauteous power of the composer’s imagination!

Having thus considered his “options” the poet then announced he would embrace life, and celebrate the intoxications of music, his “faithful and pure mistress” by plunging himself into a work which he’d already planned as a sketch – a Fantasy on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. What followed was almost Brechtian in its theatrical manipulation, the poet suddenly becoming the self-appointed “producer” of the performance about to take place, freely dispensing advice to the musicians, chorus and orchestral players alike! Along with a few moments of engaging bombast, the work had some exquisite sequences, particularly the opening scintillations of piano duet and twinkling of winds accompanying the women’s voices, calling to Miranda (the text here in Italian rather than French). The strings then began a swirling, agitated section which conjured up a fierce storm underpinned by the timpani, then after some “Le Carnaval Romain”-like instrumental passages, the voices again called to Miranda, farewelling her from the isle, after which the orchestra exploded in a kind of ferment of agitated farewell. There was praise from the poet for the players of “Orchestra Wellington” at the end! – and then – from out of the silence came the same remnant of the Symphonie’s “idée fixe” as before – to which the poet murmured, “Again, again! – and forever…..”

Of course, these sound-reminiscences were reaching right back to the evening’s beginning, with the orchestra’s performance of the work that had started the whole process, the Symphonie Fantastique. Having not been able to resist the temptation to dive immediately into the intricacies of something unfamiliar and our of the ordinary, I now propose to make amends re the concert’s first half by declaring that the performance here of what is probably Berlioz’s famous work was no less remarkable than that of Lelio. In fact, conductor and players seemed to me to sound the work’s opening as if THIS music was the hitherto undiscovered or neglected treasure we had come to hear this evening.

Every phrase of this introductory sequence seemed to me to contain some “clue” as to what would follow, as if we were being asked to fit the pieces of some vast puzzle together, and that eventually it would cohere – the rapt concentration with which these sound-impulses were made was remarkable, with even the brief, dancing string passage catching and drawing itself back in, the detailing by the winds and the horns adding to the wonderment of each moment. I loved the horn-playing in the passage leading up to the strings’ growing excitement at the approach of the famous “idée fixe”, the long-breathed string motif Berlioz used to characterise his “beloved”. Here it was playful, capricious and tender all at once, and was received by the rest of the orchestra with joy, interest and longing – and who would not want to repeat the sequence straight away after such a reception?

The repeat allowed us to focus on something different a second time, the impulsive, grainy-textured lower strings accentuating the melody’s qualities, but maintaining an outstanding orchestral sensitivity – I thought the focus on what every instrument was doing remarkably detailed!  When we reached the oboe’s subsidiary melody I felt the focus and feeling of the strings “wandering” chromatic accompaniments brought out the music’s sinister undertow, a brief but telling antithesis of the bright nervous energies which we’d heard the instruments express so well in the movement thus far.

The big “tutti” was beautifully “voiced”, the excitement shared among the different orchestral families as the music gathered even more momentum – I felt that perhaps the accelerandi might have been just a shade less controlled and a bit more “animal” (easier said than done, of course!) – but the ending was superbly brought off, sounding just like a “prayer”!

The second movement, Un bal grew nicely from out of the swirling mists, the tune articulated beautifully and the detailing a joy – here the “idée fixe” was dovetailed in as deftly as I’ve ever heard it done, and the trumpet (cornet?) made a lovely florid impression over some of the dance’s measures, as the composer intended.

Out of the silences came the sound of a cor anglais, its rusticity emphasised by an answering companion oboe somewhere in the distance (beautifully managed!), followed by exquisitely limpid string playing. I thought the different texturings, accentuations and antiphonies of the string sounds throughout this movement stunningly realised. Conductor Marc Taddei didn’t overtly “push” the change of mood mid-movement – I wanted a shade more orchestral tumult, more “panic”, as the fierce fortissimos approached – but the moment still generated considerable impact! And the strings’ ensuing accompaniment of the clarinet solo was a divine moment, epitomising the performance’s romantic sensibility. The famous timpani responses to the despairingly unanswered cor anglais calls at the movement’s end were superbly controlled – one person in the audience, lost in admiration, NEARLY clapped, both forgivably and contrariwise under the circumstances!

Dark, menacing rumblings began the renowned Marche au supplice  (March to the Scaffold), with the bassoons playing up to their capacity for grotesquerie, the brass snarling and blaring, the strings excitable and vehement – the repeat gave us double the impact of the opening, while the climax of the piece gripped the sensibilities and wouldn’t let go until the final crash of the guillotine drowned out all traces of the “idée fixe” and its brief appearance – truly the stuff of nightmares!

If the March evoked Goya-esque imageries, the final Songe d’une nuit du sabbat (Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath) conjured up even more grotesque Hieronymus Bosch-like scenarios, the eerie, air-borne cries and squealings summonsed by harsh, whining wind-calls and subterranean rumblings, the orchestral playing gleefully giving itself over to the macabre and the fantastical! Here the “idée fixe” was transformed into a bizarre mockery of the original, galumphing accompanying rhythms reaching thundering levels before being mocked and ridiculed by the rest of the orchestra – taken up by the clarinets, the distortions become even more marked and awkward-sounding, again laughed to scorn by the rest of the band.

The bell chimes evoked great barren wastes, across which the spectral sounds drifted, answered by baleful brasses announcing the thirteenth-century “Dies Irae” chant.  Cataclysmic percussion set in motion grotesque “dance of death”-like sequences, eerily leading to scenes of total abandonment and dissolution whose aspect grew wilder and wilder, conductor Taddei finally unleashing an orchestral coda whose hair-raising impetus very nearly unhorsed us all, necessitating a wild and grimly wrought “hanging on” until the music’s tumultuous end. Pandemonium!

What more could one say except that it seemed Orchestral Wellington’s “Epic” 2019 season had begun as it obviously meant to go on – with a pair of suitably “epic” performances, that of Lelio an act of “resurrection” in more ways than one! And for Wellingtonians, faced with the further attraction of a night out with the NZSO the following evening, obviously a “bumper” weekend for orchestra enthusiasts here in the capital! In the words of Lelio himself “Encore! Encore! – et pour toujours….” indeed!

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