CLASSICAL Romeo & Juliet, RFH, London

Norrington's Berlioz is as good on the ear as on the eye, says Nicholas Williams

Berlioz the eccentric is a prejudice you leave at the door these days when listening to his Romeo and Juliet. Even so, don't kid yourself he was just like one of us. Schumann said that to correct his technical flaws would be to replace character with banality. On the larger scale, his four fantastic symphonies are not canonic additions to the genre but vivid musical tales of how one very singular person thought, dreamt and felt.

Orchestras still approach them on these terms. Berlioz's hybrids are firmly in the Mahlerian brigade of scope and duration, but perhaps need even more of a pretext than the Symphony of a Thousand to be brought back down from the attic. The bait for Roger Norrington and the London Philharmonic on St Valentine's Day was "The Romantic Experience": not, as it proved, one of the conductor's striking essays in authenticity but a topical phrase to catch an audience. We've heard his Beethoven, his Brahms and his Wagner, so his Berlioz sounded like even more good news.

There were no new theories here, however, although the layout, with first and second fiddles, then woodwind, cellos and brass in two concentric semi-circles, was 19th-century. Kettledrums took the high ground, left and right, while four harps loomed large as stage properties. Before a note was sounded, Berlioz's music was looking good.

Fifteen seconds into the Introduction, as the trombones threw down the gauntlet of their stark recitative across the tumult of string fugato depicting the warring families, it was clear that this would be an aurally ravishing performance as well. No fewer than three choirs were taking part, some 240 singers in all, and their appearance on the platform was theatrically compelling. First to arrive were the Schutz Choir of London, warm and precise in the Prologue and Strophes, with mezzo Sarah Walker and tenor John Mark Ainsley the mellifluous soloists. They then disappeared off stage to sing the young Capulets after the ball, before returning with the London Philharmonic Choir and Brighton Festival Chorus to drown out the orchestra in Juliet's funeral cortege and the closing graveside ceremonies, joined by bass Miguel Angel Zapater as Friar Laurence.

Inflated it may be, yet Norrington maintained a strict regard for detail, leaving the larger form of the work to speak for itself. "Be authentic; clap whenever you approve," he told us, and we did, though thanks to Berlioz the symphonic flow remained unruptured. The bonus lay in the set-pieces, heard in the pure colours of the respective tonal groups, with an almost audible time-lag between violins and double-basses on a stage this depth. "Queen Mab" was traumatic nightmare, the balcony scene, with rapturous flute and cor anglais, of almost tangible beauty. If you closed your eyes, there the lovers were, Hollywood-style, in the soaring cellos. So what. That's how it came to Berlioz; and, as Norrington might agree, if that's the way back into the music, why not just enjoy it.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Home Care / Support Workers

    £7 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care provider is looking for Home ...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Team Leader

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

    Recruitment Genius: Client Manager

    £27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...

    Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

    £16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

    Day In a Page

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate