Best of both worlds?

Music: Vienna Philharmonic/RPO RFH, London
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The Independent Culture
Few can resist the compare-and-contrast game, least of all critics. Extracts from Prokofiev's three Romeo and Juliet ballet suites ended the Vienna Philharmonic's concert on Friday, while Saturday's Royal Philharmonic concert was devoted to Berlioz's "dramatic symphony" Romeo et Juliette. A god-given opportunity, it seemed.

The two pieces are hugely different. Prokofiev's ballet is one of his greatest and most popular works - unfailingly brilliant, gloriously tuneful, impassioned and exhilarating. The Berlioz may be one of his finest works too, but is far from universally popular. For many, it's a bizarre hybrid, blending elements of tone-poem, opera, symphony and even literary criticism.

In an inspired, understanding performance - like Roger Norrington's in his well-remembered "Berlioz Experience" weekend - the issue of whether the Berlioz is fish or fowl hardly seems to matter. What strikes home is that this is a work that had to be written, and one that obeys no laws but its own.

From Saturday's performance I would guess that conductor Valery Gergiev believes in it passionately. And the RPO's playing suggested that he had managed to convey some of his understanding to the musicians. The moment of Juliet's revival in the tomb was breath-taking, thanks mostly to clarinettist Prudence Whittaker's wonderful slow crescendo, her tiny, sighing phrases growing as if from nowhere. Here was proof that, whatever purists may argue, wordless music can tell stories as effectively as any verbal narrative.

But despite Gergiev's obvious hard work, an awful lot of it was low key: the ideas got across, but not the feeling behind them. The Love Scene - which, Berlioz said, reduced one orchestra to tears when he conducted it - made surprisingly little impact. But then it got off to a bad start: in the brief choral introduction the men of the Brighton Festival Chorus sang without much spirit, and even less feeling for the French language, and their very flat entry never quite corrected itself. Even the alto, Olga Borodina, musical and rich-toned as ever, couldn't lift the long solo lines of Part 1.

Seiji Ozawa's programme with the Vienna Philharmonic was much less risky: Prokofiev's Romeo and Mozart's Jupiter symphony are virtually fail-safe, and, given good playing, Berlioz's Waverley overture ought to be a hit. It was, and the other performances were an uncomplicated joy. The Mozart was an old-fashioned, big-band approach, but the sheer energy and sensuous warmth of the playing would have been enjoyable even if Ozawa's approach had been less sympathetic. But he shaped and shaded everything with understanding and conviction, and the finale was the tremendous climax it was meant to be.

The Prokofiev was as brilliant and uplifting as the Berlioz should have been. Sound isn't everything in music: how a conductor cultivates that sound is crucial. But there was an energy in the Viennese sound that the RPO just couldn't match. Perhaps in the next world we might get Gergiev and the Vienna Phil together - that would be just about ideal. But, for now, Ozawa and the VPO is near enough.

Stephen Johnson

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