By Nicholas Jones
In the closing movements of Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, the full brass section makes a spectacular entrance. In 1830, it must have seemed a sound that had never been heard before. Even in the jaded 21st century, it has a startling sonic complexity — at times as metallic as a locomotive’s firebox, and at others as smooth as the oiled bearings that drive the machine.
Berlioz’s symphonic outpouring about love and obsession is a perfect match with the virtuosity of The Cleveland Orchestra and the acoustics of Severance Hall. Berlioz went all out in the orchestration: two harps, two tubas (actually, in the original, two ophicleides, if anybody’s ever heard of those), two sets of timpani, four bassoons, and as many string players as he could muster.
If the brass dominate the feverish ending of the Berlioz (witches! a guillotine! an opium dream!), in the first movement, the strings set the stage for this extended Romantic tragedy. The Cleveland Orchestra’s string players — clear in tone and dazzling in intonation — engaged the audience almost instantly in the “flux of passion” that Berlioz calls for.
The orchestra’s extraordinary wind players took the vicissitudes of that passion even further, with sardonic riffs in the clarinets contrasting with lyrical ensembles among the principal oboe, flute, and bassoon. The pastoral interlude in the third movement featured the English horn (Robert Walters — more about him below) in a moving dialog with the offstage oboe, played by principal Frank Rosenwein.
The percussion drove the rhythm throughout the work. The sound of the drumbeats that lead the symphony’s hero to the scaffold remains unmistakably modern, even today. (Imagine hearing it only a generation after Beethoven!)
French conductor Lionel Bringuier managed Berlioz’s grand mayhem with grace and evident pleasure. A protegé of Gustavo Dudamel at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and now music director of the Zürich Tonhalle Orchestra, Bringuier excelled in evoking mood and color in the Impressionist tradition, reveling in Berlioz’s radical orchestrations. Read the review at ClevelandClassical.com