Thursday, 27 June 2019

Berlioz, Grand Symphonie Funèbre et triomphale - François-Xavier Roth, Les Siècles

Jean-Victor Schnetz: Combat devant l'hôtel de ville, 1830
Berlioz  Grand Symphonie Funèbre et triomphale, with François-Xavier Roth, and Les Siècles, continuing their Concert Monstre at the Pierre Boulez Salle of the Philharmonie de Paris. For Part One, "Blazing Liberté" please read my review here.  The two parts of the programme worked together well, the revolutionary visions of the first part reinforced by the solemnity of the second. Ideals are not won easily, and cannot be taken for granted.  The symphony was written in 1840, marking the anniversary of the July Revolution of 1830.  Just eight years later, the February Revolution of 1848 would change things yet again, ushering in the Second Republic.  
Berlioz's  Grand Symphonie Funèbre et triomphale reflects older traditions than modern symphonic form.  It is a ceremonial march, scored for wind instruments and percussion, instruments which would have been used in military situations. Berlioz initially used the term "Symphonie militaire", adapting it for the occasion of the re-interment of the remains of those killed in the July Revolution.  Though members of Les Siècles remain seated, the instruments they play are mobile, and could have been carried and played while marching. Period instruments, with their more natural, earthy sounds, give performance a human touch, and underline the sense of forward movement that propels the symphony towards its glorious conclusion.  

The Marche funèbre flowed with a powerful, affirmative pulse, drumstrokes and the wail of ophecliedes to the fore, lower brass followed by higher winds, as if marching in military formation. The second theme, (flutes, oboes, clarinets) offered brief retrospective before fiercely dominant chords introduced the next section, bassoons, trombones, ophecliedes, marching at a pace that increases in depth and intensity as it proceeds, punctuated by steady drumstrokes, the surge crowned with the crash of cymbals. In the Oraison funèbre, a fanfare - nine trombones in phalanx - supported by horns and trumpets, the trombone soloist above them as orator, positioned so his instrument could call out as if into vast distance, echoed at times by lighter winds.  Fragments of Berlioz's unfinished opera Les Francs-Juges were used in this movement, so the "oratory" quality of the trombone solo may have its origins in music for voice.  The trombone may be wordless, but its expressiveness is deeply poignant.

The final movement, the Apothéose, rises seamlessly from what has gone before. A march picks up, now brighter and faster paced, a march of exuberant triumph.  Berlioz used the pavilion chinois, a version of the Turkish crescent, but more elaborate, with rolls of bells under a cap (shaped like a pagoda) to further concentrate the sound.  Most orchestras use simpler versions which aren't nearly so impressive. These instruments symbolized victory, the incorporation of foreign elements by conquest.  In this version of the symphony, Roth uses the option of a second orchestra, (the Jeune Orchestre Européen Hector Berlioz) addding string colour, expanding the symphony still further from military form.  Roth  also utilizes the choirs, who served so well in the first part ofthis Concert monstre.  The voices burst forth in unison, with such precision that the effect was explosive, like a canonnade in sound.  "Gloire! Gloire ! Gloire et triomphe!". Not for nothing is this finale an apotheosis, and in this performance it was positively ablaze. It doesn't last nearly long enough. Roth and his forces repeated it as an encore. 

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