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Damnation at its most uplifting thanks to Berlioz and the Hallé

Berlioz’s standing in Britain – long greater than in his native France – can only have been further bolstered by the Hallé’s uplifting account of The Damnation of Faust on Sunday evening (Manchester Bridgewater Hall, 10 Feb 2019).

This extravagant “Dramatic Legend” – performed here as part of the 150th-anniversary commemorations of the composer’s death – certainly needs a sense of occasion if its ambitions are to be fully realised, and also if we are to be carried uncomplainingly over its more dubious aspects. Berlioz’s ever-adventurous harmonies have a habit of painting themselves into corners, then casting around anxiously for an emergency exit. Some of the text, too, can hardly help but raise an unintended smile.

Happily, this performance had almost everything going for it. Mark Elder’s judicious pacing and care for balance were a joy in themselves, and they enabled a maximum of orchestral detail to register, be it from the six harps, the four bassoons, the three piccolos, or the chords on four timpani. He and the Hallé – on top form – also reminded us that some of the finest music comes in the apparently unobtrusive transitions, as much as in familiar, sure-fire set pieces such as the Rákócky March, the Song of the Flea, and The Ballet of the Sylphs.

Having four top-flight soloists is de rigueur for this piece. Tenor David Butt Philip brought a finely sustained lyricism to the part of Faust, even when it ascends to improbably stratospheric heights; French bass-baritone Laurent Naouri relished the pantomime villainry of Mephistofeles; mezzo-soprano Rachel Kelly, stepping in at a very late stage, was a mellifluous Margarita (perhaps under different circumstances she would find even greater tonal variety for “The King of Thule”); and bass David Soar seized eagerly on the bit-part of the chief reveller, Brander.

The Hallé Choir was bolstered by male voices from the London Philharmonic Choir and Leeds Philharmonic Chorus: a wise choice, because the tenors and basses have to masquerade as peasants, drinkers, soldiers, students, demons, and who know’s what else, and here they packed a walloping punch.

Rather than the Hallé Children’s Choir and the trebles of the Hallé Youth Training Choir having to twiddle their thumbs onstage for two hours, they filed in at the end through the stalls, their angelic voices helping to ensure that Margarita’s ascent into heaven was suffused with the kind of all-encompassing love that was surely at the heart of Berlioz’s vision.

David Fanning, published 11 February 2019

David Fanning The Telegraph