ENDNOTES, October 2019

Henri Fantin-Latour, Hector Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique, Un Bal

ENDNOTES, October 2019

Stuart Millson reviews Bach in Kent and a new Berlioz recording from Toronto

Bach’s Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 – dating from 1741 – is a work often referred to as one of the greatest achievements in all music: an opening ‘aria’, a statement, of the most subtle, contemplative, mellow beauty, leading to a journey of miraculous contrast and complexity through 30 variations; and then followed by a noble summation and restatement of the opening theme.

The variations are usually heard in piano or harpsichord form. One thinks of pianist Glenn Gould’s two recorded versions, especially his slow-paced CBS account from 1981 – or harpsichordist Kenneth Gilbert’s authentically baroque account on the Harmonia Mundi label, but at the recent Music@Malling festival in Kent, the audience at St. Mary’s Abbey were treated to a surprising and beautifully executed rendition of the work by violinist David Juritz, the guitarist, Craig Ogden, and cellist, Adrian Bradbury.

Arranged by David Juritz, who provided a brief but informative account of the work and his realisation of it, the trio succeeded in turning the work into what could almost be described as an hour-long Brandenburg Concerto – with the guitar part assuming the role and sound of a lute accompaniment. Bold cello writing and playing was especially to the fore toward the conclusion of the piece; Adrian Bradbury providing an exciting, sonorous dimension – an expansive, but also autumnal sensation. The modern stone interior of the performance space at St. Mary’s – uncluttered and simple, with natural light, but also a feeling of inwardness – gave a rich but never over-reverberant tone to the sounds of the instruments; so that what we heard was detailed and gracious, but also sweeping and noble, and full of “air” and warmth.

Norman Tower front, Malling Abbey

The variations were originally written for the harpsichord – dedicated to Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, an exponent both of that instrument and the organ, although in today’s world of arrangements and rediscoveries, Bach’s music has also appeared as a piece for accordion – an unusual but delightful account, in which the greatness of the music is never diminished by an instrument more known for popular songs and tunes from taverns and streets. One hopes that Juritz’s “curating” of a great classic will appear on CD.

This year marks 150 years since the death of the great French romantic Hector Berlioz, whose Symphonie Fantastique might have been the work which unleashed the febrile, dream-like state of mind that set the stage for Wagner, Mahler and the composers and vast orchestras of the late-19th and early 20th-centuries. The symphony charts the life and passions of an artist who becomes obsessed with his beloved – with infatuation turning into troubled thoughts and doubts – culminating in nightmare scenes of a march to the scaffold and a witches’ Sabbath.

The conductor, Sir Andrew Davis – a versatile musician who has presided over some imposing performances of Berlioz – returns to this vast fresco of passion and instrumental ‘Technicolor’ with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble with which he has been associated for many years. The Canadians – recorded here in the usual dazzling sound associated with Chandos records – field an impressive battery of brass players, who conjure just the right blend of menace and swagger in the build-up to the macabre execution. Harps and a concerted string tremolo summon a scene of a summer breeze blowing through lace curtains of a haunted ballroom in the second movement waltz; timpani rumble and vibrate as thunder clouds draw across the landscape. In every orchestral department, the performers match the mood and honour the vision of a remarkable, epoch-making composer.

Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review

CD details; Glenn Gould, Bach Goldberg Variations, CBS/Sony, 37779; Berlioz, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Chandos, CHAN 5239

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