Classical Berlioz

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The Independent Culture
In a touching gesture of affection and respect, representatives of all sections of the London Symphony Orchestra offered bouquets to Sir Colin Davis after his first concert as their principal conductor at the Barbican on Saturday. No more appropriate way of launching Sir Colin's new regime could have been imagined than the programming of Berlioz's Romeo and Juliet Symphony, with which he has been intimately associated throughout his career, but the performance proved a little accident-prone and the work's extraordinary poetic vision burned fitfully.

The performance began none too securely, and the striving fugato of the warring Montagues and Capulets was rather untidily launched by the string section. But if the playing seemed to take time to settle down, the great central sequence of purely orchestral movements contained much to enjoy, with a poetic characterisation of Romeo alone and an infectiously driven ball scene which revelled in Berlioz's slashes of light and exuberent capering.

The next scene moved in touchingly improvisatory flights, mapping the impulsive responses of the two lovers, but a lapse of concentration marred the exquisite final page, and the miracle of the "Queen Mab Scherzo" also found the orchestra less than infallible. The demands on orchestral virtuosity are supreme here, and the expressive heart of Berlioz's gossamer world resides in that very virtuosity for which nothing less than instrumental perfection is required.

Things picked up once more, however, and there was a moving account of the lovers' death followed by a majestic reconciliation of their families. The singing of the London Symphony Chorus in the framing sections did not always live up to their own high standards, but Luciana D'Intino, Laurence Dale and Miguel Angel Zapater etched lively portraits as Juliet, Romeo and friar Laurence.

Four days later in the Festival Hall we heard Belioz's other great dramatic concert work, The Damnation of Faust in a thrilling performance by the London Philharmonic, the Philharmonia Chorus and a quartet of soloists under the direction of Roger Norrington. It is almost as if Berlioz was envisaging the theatre of the moving image on film and tv when he created this astonishing drama with its lightning changes of milieu and equally rapid psychological responses. In an interpretation of mercurial brilliance and dramatic intensity Norrington brought Berlioz's visionary theatre of the mind vibrantly to life, characterising all individual episodes with colourful immediacy and linking them into a compelling whole.

Famous orchestral numbers like the Hungarian March and Dance of the Sylphs were superbly managed by an orchestra which benefited enormously from being laid out with basses and cellos seated along the back of the platform, flanked by winds to the right and brass to the left. The sonorities were always crystal clear, and Berlioz's timbrel imagination glowed throughout. The choir participated with no less dramatic verve, whether as Soldiers, Students or Demons, and Keith Lewis (Faust), Jennifer Larmore (Marguerite), Jose van Dam (Mephistopheles) and Nathan Berg (Brander) excelled.