Classical Berlioz: The Romantic Experience Royal Festival Hall, London

'But best of all was the finale, an outrageous onslaught, accelerating towards a maniacal coda. It raised the roof'
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The start of the London Philharmonic's Berlioz "Experience" the Sunday before last saw us roller-coasting from a serene Gluck prelude to the fire and brimstone of a "Witches' Sabbath". It was an electrifying ride, primed, in the first half, by Roger Norrington's listener-friendly commentary, then stoked, musically speaking, by an irresistible mix of scholarship and interpretative abandon. If, like me, you'd previously thought of Berlioz as something of a one-off, Gluck's decidedly "pre-Trojan" Iphigenie en Tauride (from which we heard the prelude and opening air) will have put you straight - lean, finely tensed music, delicate in timbre but teetering on the brink of Romanticism. Both here and in a similarly revealing aria from Spontini's La Vestale, Rosalind Plowright proved an involving protagonist.

Other musical influences were more familiar: Beethoven, for example, who was represented by an abrupt, quick-fire Coriolan overture, and Weber - "inventor of supernatural music", as Norrington told us - whose seminal Oberon overture concluded the concert's first half. Here drama rather upstaged fantasy, but the point hit home and the coda blazed loud and clear.

The evening's piece de resistance, however, was a shockingly dramatic Symphonie fantastique. And what an orchestral line-up: antiphonal harps, big drums, wind, brass and violins and a centre spread of basses, cellos and violas. Performance-wise, Norrington hardly missed a trick, whether in the wishful thinking of "Daydreams", the Allegro's alarming vicissitudes of passion or the queasy modulations later on - incredible stuff, brilliantly realised, save perhaps for a certain want of smoothness in key transitions. "A Ball" was brimful of exuberance, while the cor anglais-oboe dialogue in "Scene in the Fields" (shared between stage and stalls) seemed perfectly judged: I have never heard a more compelling realisation of the closing "distant storms". The "March to the Scaffold" was positively explicit. But best of all was the finale, an outrageous onslaught, many times more exciting that Norrington's period-instrument CD and accelerating towards a maniacal coda. It raised the roof.

Last Wednesday's follow-up concert saw cellos and basses ranged to the left, woodwinds to the centre and brass and percussion to the right. King Lear's tempered rage set the scene, contrasted with Ophelia's death - a fragile sequence of verses, infinitely sad, beautifully sung by the London Philharmonic Choir and tailed by the wrenching processional of the "Funeral March for the last scene of Hamlet", complete with six military drums, bass drum and gong (but without the prescribed musket fire). Then Beatrice and Benedict broke the spell with good-humoured exuberance while, after the interval, Nobuko Imai mounted the rear stage for a vigorous Harold in Italy. Here, however, I sensed something of a mismatch between soloist and orchestra, especially in the "Pilgrims' March", where Imai seemed uncomfortable with an unfamiliar (if no doubt authentic) degree of haste. The rest was snappy, quick-witted and classically conceived: the "Brigands' Orgy" had brass and trombones wail like demons, while the LPO forged aural lightning from the closing pages. Loud cheers capped the closing chord with an enthusiastically implied "Vive le Norrington".

n 'Damnation of Faust': 7.30pm tonight, RFH, London SE1 (0171-960 4242)