Why don't we hear more Berlioz in Philadelphia? The question arose after the New York Philharmonic's beautifully focused performance of the ravishing song cycle Les nuits d'été.
The work consists of seven poems of Théophile Gautier, set to an orchestra of remarkable coloristic subtlety, in a way that boldly anticipates Debussy's impressionism.
Beyond the score's shimmering texture lies a highly original sense of harmony and dramatic structure. Careful listening finds a composer confounding the ear with little hairpin turns of harmony that give the music of this early 19th Century genius a unique signature.
Berlioz is, as well, a master of theatrical expression, most powerfully projected in his grand operas but also fully evident in the often dark-hued Romanticism of Gautier's poetry.
This combination made the exquisitely poised, crystalline singing of mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato an even greater treat than it normally is. DiDonato is a vocalist who sings the words— that is, she interprets the poetry with clear diction and feeling, rather than merely making pretty noises. Her message came across to this listener in the original language, even with my half forgotten, basic schoolboy French.
Echoes of Christa Ludwig
DiDonato managed this achievement absent any sort of histrionics in her interpretation. It's easy to imagine this Berlioz work presented with a heavier— one might say Italianate— profile, and such an approach can work. DiDonato's singing struck me as more coolly Germanic in style, as the great Christa Ludwig might have sung it. (Ludwig sang Berlioz operatic roles, but not his songs, as far as I know.)
The performance showed off a wonderful chemistry between soloist and orchestra. DiDonato, with her pitch-perfect, carefully modulated voice, sounded like one of the instruments— a haunting effect that wouldn't have been possible without her complete confidence in conductor Alan Gilbert's ability to get his superb orchestra to turn on a dime.
The Berlioz was preceded by a new work of Steven Stucky. His bright, propulsive Son et lumière (sound and light) worked especially well as an opener for this program, and not because this increasingly popular American composer chose to use French for the title. Stucky has a Gallic, almost palpable feel for the sonic character of music, even at the expense of narrative shape. Gilbert and the New Yorkers brought it all off with a stunning degree of precision and verve.
The second half selection— Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's solo piano masterpiece, Pictures at an Exhibition— was a groaner for me. You again? Yet Gilbert's reading was surprisingly refreshing, and very different from the severely controlled readings of the concert's first half.
You could even see the difference in Gilbert's podium manners. In the Berlioz and the Stucky, his motions were quick and deft, with constant razor-sharp cues to specific instrumentalists. In the Mussorgsky, his arms swung freely from his shoulders, a mark of his confidence in the innate virtuosity of his storied band, which delivered a reading of great swagger and honest exhilaration.♦
To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.