Carnegie Hall, New York
October 14 and 15, 2018

Founded in 1989 by Sir John Eliot Gardiner to be a 19th-century foil to his English Baroque Soloists, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique is now one of the longest-in-the-tooth of the historically informed Romantic-era brigade. However, as proven by these two Carnegie Hall programs of music by Hector Berlioz (and let’s be honest, the orchestra might have been named for him), these old dogs have more than a few new tricks up their collective sleeves.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts Orchestra Révloutionnaire et Romantique. Photo © Stephanie Berger

At 75, Gardiner remains one of the most vigorous and inspirational figures on the podium, driving his interpretations with a fiery intelligence and passion that speaks eloquently of the period. He’s especially right for Berlioz, himself a conductor noted for flare and precision, who became one of the defining steps towards the making of the modern maestro. Over the last 30 years, the sound of the period orchestra has become more familiar – the lean sound of gut strings, buzzy woodwind, blunt-edged brass and the thwack of a hard stick on timpani – but it still has the power to shock. The ORR doesn’t overwhelm with its sound, but it is still one of the bigger period bands out there and can still create the kind of racket that Berlioz’s contemporary detractors lambasted him for. But – and again, just like Berlioz – they can readily fill a silence with a gossamer solo line and even at fortissimo their blend is immaculate. Oh, and Aussie watchers would be delighted to spot Bach Akademie Australia founder Madeleine Easton heading up the first violins.

The first of two programs took snapshots across the composer’s career, beginning with La Mort de Cléopâtre, a student effort and a failed entry for the Prix de Rome, and proceeding to excerpts from Les Troyens by way of his Le Corsaire Overture and Harold in Italy, the hybrid viola concerto-cum-symphony that Paganini declined to premiere. The second program was more obviously cohesive. In a rare recreation of an actual concert that took place in 1832, Gardiner played the ubiquitous Symphonie Fantastique followed by its sequel, Lélio (or the Return to Life), a piece for speaker, orchestra, chorus, soloists and piano four hands. It is perhaps Berlioz’s most radical creation, and certainly the least-performed of his major works.

If the first concert looked disparate on paper, it was bound together by a desire to consider novel dramatic frameworks for each of the works. The high-octane Le Corsaire overture kicked off with the orchestra standing up – un peur révolutionnaire, and as the band swayed sensually to the music, more than un peur romantique. No-one really knows what the piece is about (Berlioz nearly named it after the newspaper that published his first bit of writing!), but that didn’t bother Gardiner who whipped up a rollicking eight-minute music drama, baying brass nipping at the heels of scampering strings.

Mezzo soprano Lucile Richardot. Photo © Stephanie Berger

La Mort de Cléopâtre received a thrilling committed reading from mezzo Lucile Richardot. With its choppy cross rhythms and snarly woodwind you can see how Berlioz blew up the stuffy old Conservatoire committee who were sufficiently disgusted that they refused to award the Prix de Rome at all that year. Richardot was Cleopatra, rising from desperation through despair to a dignified suicide and final expiration. A superb singing actress, she chewed the words to tremendous effect, producing a stream of glorious tone, if rather pushed on the top notes. Gardiner was with her all the way, the asp bite and throbbing as the venom flowed through her veins a real musical coup.

She was equally commanding, rushing in from stage left to deliver Dido’s breathless Je vais mourir and a powerfully lyrical Adieu, fière cité. That the student work so clearly presaged the mature masterpiece was just one of the afternoon’s revelations. The orchestra preceded the aria with a whirlwind interpretation of the same opera’s Royal Hunt and Storm, offstage saxhorns echoing left and right, pounding timpani and the female string players doubling up vividly as Berlioz’s chorus of wailing nymphs caught in a downpour.

The brilliant French violist cwas the soloist for Harold in Italy, one of Berlioz’s sunniest creations. First discovered lolling against the proscenium, he proceeded to wander inquisitively over to the harpist, leaning in to play the ‘Harold’ theme as an intimate duet. A puckish, yet melancholy figure, Tamestit might have been be a dead ringer for Byron’s Childe Harold (or even Paganini himself), swooping and swooning, yet never letting the physical ‘dramatics’ get in the way of his perfectly produced tone and dazzling technique. In the Pilgrim’s March he went walkabout, in and out of the orchestra, emphasising the soloist’s subdued concertante role as first among equals rather than as star virtuoso. In the finale, he was literally sucked into the brigands’ orgy, to be spat out at the rear of the orchestra, playing his final reminiscence of the pilgrims’ theme from the very back. It seems unlikely that Berlioz could have envisaged such a performance, but it was utterly riveting and entirely in the spirit of the maverick composer. Gardiner and the ORR captured it all, from the gloomy opening to the heady swing of the big tune and the debauched antics of the finale.

Violist Antoine Tamestit. Photo © Stephanie Berger

And so, on to concert number two. Symphonie Fantastique recounts episodes in the life of a rejected lover, the first movements being gloomy reminiscences before his descent into opium leads to more extreme visions, including his own execution and resurrection at a witches’ sabbath. Gardiner is an old hand at the work, his intense brand of music-making painting a series of potent pictures in the air, but this interpretation seemed particularly keen on inhabiting the borderline between sanity and madness. The first movement was all swirling crescendi emerging out of febrile, mysterious strings (Gardiner divided violins, with basses to the left, all of which anticipated and enhanced the composer’s sound stage). The slight drug-addled slur afflicting the first statement of the idée fixe was a theme pushed further and further as the work went on.

The four harps were placed centre-stage for Le Bal and carried off again immediately thereafter. It caused a slight hiatus, but added to the composer’s sense of a series of visions. Again, the violins were just a bit woozy giving more than a hint that the protagonist wasn’t saving the opium for simply the final two movements. With dark purring bassoons and serpent, blaring brass and a series of stentorian farts from the ophicleide, the March to the Scaffold was positively brutal, ending with a sickening thud. The witches careered along with particularly flesh-creeping contributions from trombones, bassoons and a remarkably sonorous bell.

And then came the real revelation. A deeply personal work, Symphonie Fantastique was written as an emotional purge for what the composer felt was his hopelessly unrequited love for the Irish Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson. What many people don’t know is that a couple of years later Berlioz wrote a sequel, this time to get over being jilted by his fiancée, the pianist Camille Moke. Called Lélio, it comes in six parts joined by a substantial spoken text and explains how a creative spirit can come back from the brink of suicide through his belief in art, theatre and, in particular, music.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Photo © Stephanie Berger

It is a work that can seem piecemeal and bewildering on record, especially with an overheated narrator giving it large in purple-flowering French. It is also written for the orchestra to be hidden from view until the very end while the audience focuses on the hyperactive speaker, a figure clearly intended to represent the young Berlioz himself. Having never seen it staged before, the chances of it coming as a disastrous anti-climax seemed high – it is, after all, in many ways Berlioz’s awkward ‘second album’. Well, thanks to a judicious staging, an engaging narrator and some fine musicianship it actually came off, making sense of history’s claim that it was the more successful of Berlioz’s two works.

Simon Callow was our guide, discovered slumped in a chair and gradually coming down after OD’ing on opium. Somewhat older than the composer’s imagined protagonist, he made up for it with a louche, yet raddled air and the kind of Shakespearean chops demanded of the text with its repeated veneration of the Bard (for Berlioz, an artist akin to Beethoven and Goethe). It was a compelling reading, only marred by a tendency to mumble and the odd moment where he was clearly flailing for the next line. He was ably abetted by a stylish Michael Spyres, whose clean, light tenor was perfectly suited to a pair of melodies sung to piano accompaniment.

Careful integration of text and music kept the soufflé from sinking, and Gardiner bravely kept only minimal light on the band, thus honouring the composer’s wishes as nearly as he could. Particularly effective were the National Youth Choir of Scotland, singing with precision, energy and superlative diction. But the most powerful moments of all were the frissons generated by the appearance of the idée fixe from the Symphonie Fantastique, drawing attention to Berlioz’s sheer dramatic daring in marrying these two utterly different works. A revelatory experiment, then, that others should consider giving a try. On its own, Lélio may not be the strongest of works, but here was a classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.