Prom 71: John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Revolutionaire et Romantique play Berlioz

Playing standing, the orchestra launched into Le corsaire with
enormous energy. Throughout the music was by turns headlong and thoughtful
with a real tang to the timbres, creating a vivid performance full of

This was followed by La mort de Cleopatra, Berlioz’s third attempt
at winning the Prix de Rome (in fact that cantata was far too daring for
the jury). It is a striking sequence of recitative and aria which Berlioz
sets in a fluid manner, creating a single narrative. Joyce DiDonato gave a
dramatic performance, full of arresting detail and a vivid attention to the
words. She was complemented by the timbres and textures of the orchestra,
everyone making the music full of quick changes of mood. The death scene at
the end was terrific.

Next came the Royal Hunt and Storm from Les Troyens, the
ballet sequence which is as much orchestral showpiece as anything else.
Gardiner started quietly but again it was the sound and contrasts of the
period instruments which brought the music alive. Gardiner brought the
off-stage brass on-stage so that we were able to make the most of the
saxhorns, and it was lovely to be able to hear the contrast between the
smooth even tone of the saxhorns and the more varied timbres of the
hand-stopped French horns. This was a performance full of contrasts and
textures you could cut with a knife, a vivid and theatrical orchestral

We plunged on directly to Dido’s death scene, with Joyce DiDonato rushing
on during the prelude. She gave us fluidly shaped recitative, complemented
by the colours in the orchestra. She made a passionate and dignified Dido,
with touching references back to the love duet. Unfortunately, given such a
vivid performance, we did not get the final death scene and the performance
finished with the air ‘Adieu, fiere cite’.

In the second half we returned to earlier in Berlioz’ career with his
symphony Harald in Italy. Gardiner and the orchestra began the
first movement with the soloist, Antoine Tamestit, off stage. Gardiner
brought a classical sweep to the music, yet the timbre of period
instruments gave romantic spice to the music. The piece is hardly a
concerto, Harold is the eternal observer, and Tamestit emphasised this by
coming on stage and observing the orchestra before playing, and he rarely
stood in the classic soloist’s position, instead wandering round the stage
creating a sense of visual dramatic narrative. He plays quite a big viola
with a beautiful singing sound, so that though not a virtuoso work
Tamestit’s melodic line was the passionate centre of attention, and both
Tamestit and Gardiner brought sheer energy to the work. The second movement
was full of attractive textures, whilst Tamestit’s playing had real poetry
to it in the third movement. In the lively last movement, Gardiner and the
orchestra emphasised the crisp and lively rhythms, whilst Tamestit’s viola
wandered in and out of the orchestra both physically and musically.

This was a programme which showed what can be gained from performing
Berlioz on period instruments, and Gardiner and his team complemented this
with a vivid sense of energy. It was lovely to hear DiDonato in the snippet
from Les Troyens, but as with the recent Proms performance of two
arias from Samuel Barber’s Anthony and Cleopatra, it made you wish
that room could have been made for more substantial excerpts or even the
whole work. As it was, there was rather a sense of greatest hits about the
evening, but what hits they are.

Robert Hugill

Prom 71: Hector Berlioz – Le corsair, La mort de Cleopatra, ‘Royal Hunt and Storm’ (Les Troyens
), Dido’s death scene (Les Troyens), Harold in Italy

Joyce DiDonato – soprano, Antoine Tamestit – viola, John Eliot Gardiner –
conductor Orchestra Revolutionnaire et Romantique.

BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, London; 5th September 2018.

image_description=Prom 71: John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Orchestra Revolutionnaire et Romantique
product_title=Prom 71: John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Orchestra Revolutionnaire et Romantique
product_by=A review by Robert Hugill
product_id= Above: Joyce DiDonato (soprano) and John Eliot Gardiner (conductor)

Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou