CLASSICAL Romeo & Juliet, RFH, London

Norrington's Berlioz is as good on the ear as on the eye, says Nicholas Williams
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Indy Lifestyle Online
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.