Sir Simon's defining, devastating moment

Romeo and Juliet | Royal Festival Hall, London
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The Independent Culture

There's nothing quite like bringing on the old instruments to "make it new". And when the music is by Berlioz, and the conductor is Sir Simon Rattle, the innovation factor instantly doubles.

There's nothing quite like bringing on the old instruments to "make it new". And when the music is by Berlioz, and the conductor is Sir Simon Rattle, the innovation factor instantly doubles.

Rattle's Royal Berlioz concerts at the Festival Hall, with the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment liberated some undreamt of sonorities. On Wednesday night winds and basses made a striking effect in The Death of Cleopatra - so much so that the shocking last moments, in which grinding basses conjure a pre-Mahlerian sense of hopelessness, upstaged even Anne Sophie von Otter's theatrical singing.

Berlioz slips in thematic hints of the Roman Carnival where, in a performance of the Overture, Rattle cued some incredibly soft string-playing. But the first concert's main attraction was the Symphonie fantastique - hackneyed to pot-boiler status it's true, but no less great for that.

Wednesday's performance gave us ophicleides, snorting period bassoons (four of them), a cornet, bass drums on either side of the stage and bells backed by five harps. It was a model of textural clarity, although I did wonder whether Rattle was more in tune with the score's musical ideas than its pathological obsessiveness. Mahler's irony seems to suit him better, yet the symphony's visceral element could not have been more vividly conveyed.

Last night was Romeo and Juliet's turn, that peerless setting of Shakespeare's tragedy and a sure prompt for Wagner's Tristan and Isolde.

Rattle made the tragedy palpable. Everything came together. The studied chaos of the introduction, the heartfelt paragraphs of the mezzo-soprano's commentary (Von Otter again on form) and the gaiety of the Capulets' feast.

But it was the magic and the pain that worked best. But all the explanation in the world couldn't undo the devastating effect of what we heard. My guess is that it was a defining moment in Sir Simon's expression of Berlioz. And in ours.

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