Berlioz is said to have admired the "impeccable clarity" of Mendelssohn's score and, indeed, the devilish happenings in its central choruses run the Frenchman's more familiar "Dream of a Witches' Sabbath" a close contest - certainly in terms of visceral excitement. As it happened, the concert's second half was taken up with Berlioz's equally compelling "symphony in four parts with viola solo" after Byron, Harold in Italy. Elder and his orchestra were joined by Thomas Zehetmair, who stood nervously by while double-basses growled the opening "Scenes of Melancholy" and a baleful bassoon sung above them. The first movement was forceful, well drilled and fairly metrical in its phrasing (Elder played the repeat), with a freely expressive solo commentary from Zehetmair. Best, perhaps, was the haunting "Pilgrim's March", with its tolling horns and harp, delicately pointed by Elder and with Zehetmair bowing a chilled, sometimes barely audible sul ponticello (that is, edging the bow very near to the bridge).
The Abruzzi Highlander's Serenade was swift and lifting and the opening of the "Brigands' Orgy" snappy and well paced: like Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony, Berlioz summons key motives from earlier movements before setting out the main body of his musical argument. The Orgy itself struck me as rather too well policed - incisive, yes, and very competently played, but set at a lower voltage than the first movement. Still, period instruments generated their own manner of excitement, especially valveless horns in the coda. As to the rest of the movement, Zehetmair took a seat while Berlioz summoned vigorous arpeggios from the strings and the trombones played down to their boots.
Concert repeated Monday at 2pm on BBC Radio 3
Robert CowanReuse content