Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Liberté ! - Berlioz Concert Monstre - F X Roth, Les Siècles Part One

Berlioz Concert Monstre with François-Xavier Roth, and Les Siècles and a cast of hundreds, livestreamed from the Philharmonie de Paris (link here). "Concert Monstre" was the title of a concert Berlioz presented in 1844, where performers (over 100) outnumbered the audience.  Roth's Concert Monstre employs closer to 500, with two orchestras and six choirs but the acoustic of the Pierre Boulez Salle handles such forces well, even at full volume.  But this was a "Concert Monstre" in another sense, too,  since it was a grand extravaganza designed for maximum impact. In the first half, spectacular paeans to progress and liberty - L'Impériale, Chant de chemins de fer, Le Temple universal, topped by the Hymne Marseillaise. In the second half, the Grand Symphonie Funèbre et triomphale.

"Du peuple entier, les âmes triomphantes ont tressailli comme au cri du destin !" - the choirs sang, getting L'Impériale (H129, 185) off with a blazing start. Ostensibly, the  text celebrates the revival of the imperial dynasty under Napoléan III, but this is an empire with roots in revolution : the real hero here is the French nation itself, and its people. This "Concert Monstre" was also hommage to Berlioz himself. Berlioz was literary : he loved words on the page as much as in the theatre. When he used text, it was often integral to his music.  The concert included spoken quotations from Berlioz's own writings, and commentary.  The speakers were clearly heard, again demonstrating the merits of the Pierre Boulez Salle. 

Thus the Chant de chemins de fer (H110, 1850), a cantata for voice, orchestra and chorus, with tenor Julien Dran.  The text, by Jules Janin, expresses the exhilration of new technology, the coming of railways and the "merveilles de l’industrie". Berlioz wrote the piece very rapidly, taking time off from working on Le Damnation de Faust. Perhaps there are connections : just as Faust flies through the skies, trains carried people through the landcape at what were then almost unimaginable speeds.  Even more pertinently,  Goethe's Faust made his pact with Méphistofeles in order to gain knowledge which might save mankind. This creates a sub-context for the cantata, connecting it to Berlioz's interest in Saint-Simonian ideology, and to the idea of progress through an economic order based on industry.  To Berlioz, phrases like "Pour vous, ouvriers, La couronne est prête" would have had extra meaning. This intensifies the sense of excitement which Berlioz builds into the setting. The rhythms may replicate the chugging of motors and movement of wheels, but the strong sense of forward propulsion might also evoke the thrill of social revolution. One might even detect faint echoes of the Marseillaise. "Que de montagnes effacées! Que de rivières traversées! Travail humain, fécondante sueur!". In the strophe which mentions". The lines grow hushed, the choruses singing of spirits descending into tombs, as they greet the dawn of a new age. Thus the chorus repeats each word of the soloist : "La Paix ! le Roi! L'ouvrier! La patrie", with a fervour that's almost religious. On this happy day, the laurels go to the "Soldats de la paix, C’est votre victoire; C’est à vous la gloire De tant de bienfaits." The final strophe was delivered with almost explosive force, Dran's voice ringing out like shining clarion. 

In Le Temple universal (H137, op 28, before 1861)  Berlioz returns, towards the end of his life, to idealism. In this orchestration, by Yves Chauris, male and female choruses combine, reinforcing the concept that an enlightened Europe should unite, beyond frontiers, to embrace "Le grand hymne de notre liberté!"  An appropriate hymn for present times !  Roth is no fool : He has often shown courage when expressing his convictions. To press the point still further, Berlioz's orchestration for large orchestra, soloist and chorus of the Marseillaise (H 51a), written in the wake of the July Revolution of 1830.  What an experiece this must have been in the Pierre Boulez Salle ! Everyone standing who could - the orchestra, the chorus, the audience. When Dran sang the solo passage, the orchestra seemed to well around him. The Choeurs et orchestres des Grandes Ecoles,Choeur Sorbonne Université, Choeur de la Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris,Choeur CalligrammesChoeur des Universités de Paris, and Choeur InChorus (Chorus master Frédéric Pineau) were joined by informal singers in the choir stalls, ordinary people, some singing from memory, and no doubt a few in the audience.  That is what a Marseillaise should be about - drawing the people together. "Amour sacré de la Patrie, Conduis, soutiens nos bras vengeurs
Liberté, Liberté eg tes défenseurs ! Combats
avec tes défenseurs!".  At this point in history, it seems that the forces of freedom, liberty and genuine democracy are being destroyed, by technological manipulation,  intolerance, and pig-headed stupidity.  We need the Marseillaise. I played this over and over, loudly. My son popped in. "Wow!", he said "That's fantastic!"  

My review of Part 2 of this Concert Monstre when François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles do Grand Symphonie Funèbre et triomphale  is HERE! Please enjoy

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