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Selected Review


Festival

Festival Berlioz 2016: La Côte Saint-André, south-east France

Berlioz

Christopher Follett

An effervescent concert performance by the Gürzenich Orchester & Chor der Oper Köln of Berlioz's exuberant – and fiendishly difficult – first opera Benvenuto Cellini dating from 1838 and inspired by the memoirs of the Florentine sculptor – was one of the absolute highlights of the 23rd Festival Berlioz (from August 19-30) in the composer's birthplace in the foothills of the Alps last August.

The Cologne orchestra was directed by its chief conductor, François-Xavier Roth; Austrian tenor Ferdinand von Bothmer sang the title role, with American soprano Emily Hindrichs as Teresa, French bass baritone Vincent Le Texier as Balducci, Croat baritone Miljenko Turk as Fieramosca, Russian bass Nikolay Didenko as the Pope and Austrian mezzo-soprano Katrin Wundsam as Benvenuto's apprentice Ascanio – a strong international cast fresh from a full-stage production at the Cologne Opera. The orchestra carried off the well-known Roman Carnival music with panache, the grotesque ophicleide solo in the pantomime at the end of Act 1 was delivered with the necessary fruity vulgarity, while the major choral scenes, notably the Goldsmiths' Hymn, were a sheer triumph.

As usual most of the Festival Berlioz concerts took place in the courtyard of the crumbling Château Louis X1 high above La Côte; Roth had opened the event proper on August 20 with his period instrument Orchestre Les Siècles in Berlioz's spiky Les Francs-Juges overture, followed by a most sensual rendering of the Les Nuits d'été song cycle by Swedish mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter and a smooth performance of Harold en Italie, with Adrien La Marca on the viola in a symphony which seems to leave the soloist high and dry half way through its frenzied final movement!

On August 21 – direct from the BBC Proms - came a truly gripping interpretation of the Roméo et Juliette Dramatic Symphony, judged by many to be Berlioz's greatest masterpiece; Sir John Eliot Gardiner was at the helm of his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Monteverdi Choir and National Youth Choir of Scotland and strong French vocalists – Quebecoise mezzo Julie Boulianne, tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt and the great Laurent Naouri, bass baritone, singing Père Laurence. For his performance Gardiner - as he alone does, I believe – had restored passages in the fifth movement cut from Berlioz's original version of the work - notably a second prologue for semi-chorus (orchestrated by Oliver Knussen) and extra bars of the Requiem aeternum in Juliet's funeral march, adding some seven minutes to the approximately two-hour running time of the work. By placing members of the Monteverdi Choir in front of the podium, directed by a sub-conductor, Gardiner achieved overwhelming effect here, while the ORR, an historically informed ensemble of the first order, delivered some quite glorious “period” sound, rich in sputtering interjections from burpant ophicleides – a truly Berliozian touch.

In his early career Berlioz made four attempts at winning the prestigious Prix de Rome music prize, sponsored by the Académie des Beaux Arts of the Institut de France, succeeding only in 1830; at an unusual concert on August 24, the Orchestre de Pays de Savoie under Nicolas Chalvin played the prize cantatas submitted in 1828 by all three finalists in that year's competition – Berlioz, Pierre-Julien Nargeot and Guillaume Ross-Despréaux, two completely unknown composers today. The pieces were played to the festival audience without the names of the composers being divulged, whereupon they had to vote on which version they considered the winner.

The set subject for the cantata was Torquato Tasso's Herminie (Erminia) – the tale of the Muslim princess of Antioch and her love for Christian crusader knight Tancred, prince of Galilee. In Berlioz's Herminie cantata, which came only joint second after Ross-Despréaux's (utterly conventional) entry– the famous idée fixe theme of the Symphonie fantastique appears for the very first time; the Festival concertgoers put Berlioz firmly in winning position this time though – 188 years after the Prix de Rome contest! The 25-year-old Franco-Danish soprano Elsa Dreisig, due to join the Staatsoper Berlin in 2017 – and one of the stars of the Festival - sang ravishing renderings of these cantatas as she had done of little aired Berlioz songs such as Le Chant des Bretons, Le Jeune Pâtre breton and Le Trébuchet on the previous evening.

Berlioz composed in all some 50 songs, many of which are rarely heard in concert today, and the Festival programmed some more of these little pearls on August 25 with well-known mezzo-soprano Isabelle Druet singing La Captive (text by Victor Hugo) and La Belle Voyageuse, one of the Neuf Mélodies – Irlande song cycle inspired by poems of Thomas Moore, accompanied here by the Orchestre d'Auvergne; also on the bill that evening was a real rarity: Zaïde – Berlioz's “Bolero” - complete with castanets and dating from 1845. The festival of course performed works by other composers than Berlioz – the local Saint André Church, where Berlioz was baptised, hosted a quite remarkable 16-hour marathon piano recital by the astonishing Lebanese virtuoso pianist Abdel Rahman El Bacha who played all 217 works for solo piano of Chopin – who Berlioz knew and described as 'an artist apart' ; the pieces were brilliantly performed over the course of nine recitals - without score and eschewing all intervals – and with total concentration. The whole festival was rounded off with the local band – the fine Orchestre national de Lyon – under the busy baton of Poland's Marzena Diakun – assistant chief conductor of the French Radio Philharmonic Orchestra - in a blistering performance of the Symphonie fantastique.

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