Carmel Bach Festival, July 19, 2013

Fantastic Berlioz

Some audience members and Festival musicians alike were quick to pass negative judgment on Paul Goodwin’s ‘version’ of the Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz. I, for one, loved it! For sure, there were numerous departures from the weighty and slick big-orchestra sound. What Goodwin did here was try to replicate the orchestra set-up of the Paris Conservatoire premiere, in 1830, just before the composer’s 27th birthday. Berlioz called for an orchestra of 90 players (including 6pastedGraphic copy0 strings and four harps.) But, at its premiere, under François Habeneck, he got less than a full complement. (See illustration, and note where cellos are paired with double basses, just as Goodwin is doing in Carmel) Of course, the smaller Sunset Center stage was another factor determining this decision, the orchestra even more scaled down than Habeneck’s, though all parts were covered. But, on point, Goodwin was after a more colorful palette than the smoothly polished, evenly balanced sound most of us are used to hearing. For that reason, he combined the unvalved natural trumpets with cornets a pistons, and paired up both natural and valved horns. And for the last two movements, March to the Scaffold and Witches’ Sabbath, he asked for “raucous” sounds from winds and percussion. Except for some minor balance issues, he got what he wanted. I heard some surprising effects for the first time.

Other welcome details of Goodwin’s 53-minute performance were the off-stage oboe echoing the cor anglais’s plaintive melody that opens the Scene in the Country, repeating the first two minutes of the March to the Scaffold, and the two bass drums, heads up, in the busy percussion battery of the last movement. According to Goodwin, Berlioz was happy with the premiere (though he would later condemn Habeneck for ruining the first performance of his celebrated Messe des Morts.)

The first half of the evening opened with a suite of (mostly) rustic dances from Les Boréades, the last opera by Jean-Philipp Rameau (1683-1764). Quite frankly, this is not the best material from this composer, but it does flatter the musicians, especially the winds, including clarinets, apparently their first appearance in orchestral music. Appropriate to a story about the god of the north wind, a wind machine made an appearance in the first Entr’acte, to the amusement of the audience. The reading was also a bit tense, exhibiting a portion of cracked notes. That tightness also negatively affected the following Tombeau de Couperin by Maurice Ravel, which suffered from tempi a little too rushed for all the notes to stand their ground. However, the four-movement suite did make vividly clear its Baroque roots.