Friday, 15 November 2019

Hector Berlioz - the Musical Outsider

Berlioz when a student at the Villa Medici in Rome in 1832
Berlioz when a student at the Villa Medici in Rome in 1832
The Musical Outsider - Hector Berlioz; Nadine Benjamin, Michael Bell, Nigel Foster, Gabriel Woolf; London Song Festival at Hinde Street Methodist Church
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 14 November 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A remarkable portrait of Berlioz, mingling song and spoken word, including the original version of Les Nuits d'Été

Hector Berlioz was the eternal outsider, never really achieving consistent success in France in his lifetime, his music somehow too idiosyncratic. Yet it is these very qualities which make Berlioz the genius he is. As part of the London Song Festival's Outsiders series at Hinde Street Methodist Church on Thursday 14 November 2019, Nadine Benjamin (soprano), Michael Bell (tenor), Gabriel Woolf (speaker) and festival artistic director Nigel Foster (piano) presented the Musical Outsider, a portrait of Hector Berlioz which mixed Gabriel Woolf's spoken excerpts from Hector Berlioz' memoirs (translated by David Cairns) with Berlioz' songs including Les Nuits d'Été (in its original piano version), songs from Irlande, La Mort d'Ophelie, Chant de Bonheur, La Captiveand Zaide.

Central to the evening was Gabriel Woolf's magnificent re-creation of Hector Berlioz' own voice through his memoirs. Starting with Berlioz' description of his birth, and ending with the gruesome image of the reinterment of Harriet Smithson and Berlioz' envoi, Woolf's performance really brought the memoirs alive, and you could have well believed that it was the composer himself reminiscing. Berlioz' was a full and active life, so we had little excerpts from it, and often music and text chimed together. Songs like Chant de Bonheur were explicitly described in the memoirs, whilst others provided more oblique musical commentary, some of the songs from Irlande for instance providing a musical commentary of Berlioz' romantic obsession with Harriet Smithson. Frankly, I could have happy listened to Woolf reading from the memoirs all evening, but thankfully the musical side of the evening was equally engaging.


Berlioz wrote Les Nuits d'Été originally in 1840-41, and it was billed as being for mezzo-soprano or tenor and piano, he then orchestrated it to create the version familiar today, but transposed some of the songs so that the cycle needed four different voices. The piano version that is generally heard today is a piano reduction of the orchestral version, but here Nigel Foster returned to Berlioz' original piano version. The songs were not performed as a single group but spread around the evening, and shared between Nadine Benjamin and Michael Bell, with Benjamin getting the majority, Bell singing Sur les lagunes and the two singers joining together for Au Cimetiere, the final item which was interspersed with Woolf's final readings (Harriet Smithson's reburial and the envoi).

Berlioz' Irlande was his  first song cycle, written in 1829 when he was 26 and setting translations of Thomas Moore (largely) by his friend Thomas Gounet. The cycle is a mixture of solo song, duet and chorus, and we heard the five solo numbers, all sung by Michael Bell.

Berlioz' idiosyncratic music can be complex even when it appears to be simple, yet it often needs to sound effortless and natural, as if the performer had being doing it all their lives. Both Bell and Benjamin are, I think at the beginning of their journey through Berlioz and there were times when his music did not feel quite as natural as it should, you were too much aware of complexity and artifice. But both singers sang with an engaging freshness and in a highly communicative manner.

Singing with warm, vibrant tones, Nadine Benjamin brought a lovely sense of joy and delight to the songs from Les Nuits d'Été, from the excitement and enthusiasm for the voyage in L'ile inconnue to the touching intensity of Absence. From the solo songs, Benjamin gave us an engagingly flirtatious Zaide, an evocative La Captive (first verse only), and a haunting account of La mort d'Ophelie.

The Thomas More settings from Irlande were something of a surprise, eschewing the naive romantic lyricism of the original melodies for something rather more complex. Yes, there were occasional echoes of the salon, in the refrain of Adieu, Bessy! but Berlioz seemed incapable of writing something simple and straightforward. Michael Bell proved to be a highly communicative singer, giving touching performances of the various types of melancholy, love-lorn displayed in the songs. He has quite a high-tensile voice, and there were moments when the songs needed something more lyrically relaxed, but when Berlioz reached the peak of intensity in a song, then Bell delivered beautifully. Bell sang one of the solo songs, the delightful Chant de Bonheur (which has Berlioz' own words), as well as giving us an intense and dark account of Sur les lagunes from Les Nuits d'Été.

This evening added up to a remarkable portrait of Berlioz, thanks to the way Foster's programme wove the music and the excerpts from the memoirs together into a seamless dramatic whole, linked and kept in focus by the remarkable portrait of Berlioz given by Gabriel Woolf.

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  • From Eugene O'Neill play to American folk opera: I chat to composer Edward Thomas about his opera Anna Christie - interview
  • Gems and discoveries: Piano Quartets from the Rossetti Ensemble at Conway Hall  (★★★★)  - CD review
  • Come into the Garden: Samling Artist Showcase 2019 at Wigmore Hall (★★★★) - CD review
  • Bringing to the community something which it would not otherwise see: I chat to festival director Anthony Wilkinson about the Wimbledon International Music Festival - interview 
  • Engagingly youthful: Mozart's Cosi fan tutte from Ian Page and the Mozartists (★★★★) - opera review
  • Beethoven Transformed: volume 1 of Boxwood & Brass' new project  (★★★★) Cd review
  • A final farewell: the Hilliard Ensemble & Jan Garbarek captured live on their final tour, Remember me, my dear (★★★) - CD review 
  • A distinct voice: Emergence, Nadine Benjamin & Nicole Panizza in settings of Emily Dickinson (★★★½) CD review
  • The Exiled Outsiders: music by Hans Gál, Max Kowalski, Peter Gellhorn at London Song Festival  (★★★★) - concert review
  • An artist should be careful not to put themselves in a box: I chat to tenor Leonardo Capalbo about the challenges of singing the title role in Verdi's Don Carlos - interview
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