29 NOVEMBER 2003, Page 73

On-the-edge genius

Robin Holloway

Ts Hector Berlioz one of those maverick Icomposers who never quite settle into an indisputable mainstream (if not. as Stravinsky lethally observed of Liszt's orchestral music, only kept alive by perpetually renewed neglect)? Questions about this ever-fascinating figure are by no means confined to his big birthdays. But this week's bicentennial gives a pretext for trying them this way and that all over again.

England and Germany have long embraced this turbulent and contradictory musician. He was treasured as conductor and composer in both countries while still struggling against impossible odds (and sods) in his own. The first collected edition of his works was German; the second, employing high-calibre German printing, has been largely directed by British scholarship at its finest, with Hugh Macdonald now steering the venture towards its triumphant completion. David Cairns's biography is recognised even by Berlioz's fellow French as outstanding; the best analytical writing on the music is by another native scholar, Julian Rushton; and Cohn Davis is only the most senior of its many superb British champions in live and recorded performance, following a tradition at least as old as Hamilton Harty and Thomas Beecham.

If not 'perpetually renewed neglect', Berlioz certainly depends upon a periodic clarion-call that urges resounding, indeed hyperbolic, claims, often accompanied by gleeful attempts to downgrade a perceived Teutonic stranglehold, contemporary with his oeuvre. from late Beethoven via Bruckner and (mainly) Wagner, to early Brahms. But the need to emplinth him in the Pantheon can backfire. Cooler appraisal shows him vulnerable to virtually every variety of legitimate criticism. And on every scale. The frequent solecisms in details — the placing of a harmony, the curve of a counter-melody — don't irritate merely the squeamish grammarian: such fine points make the sensitive listener wince as the princess feels the pea through 18 mattresses; their cumulative effect can undermine whole stretches of even his finest pieces.

The opposite fault is of course the gigantism — of ambition. length, performingforces and the almighty noise they make under the able command of a general who is also a stirring rhetorician — but often rendered by mediocre ideas handled so laboriously that, again, the scrupulous listener senses not the pea 18 mattresses beneath so much as the brontosaurus in the bed itself.

For me, and many others, things like the Grande Messe des marts and the Te Deum are unambiguously monstrous — frigid to boot, for all the blasts of hot air. But what about the blockbusters composed from the heart? Take Romeo et Juliette. Purely orchestral movements (with the slightest touch of voices now and then) of the most ardent inspiration and emotional authenticity — lovelorn Romeo all alone as guests pour in for the Capulets' ball; the lovescene that unfolds as they depart; the gossamer toughness of the 'Queen Mab' scherzo; the fugal lament accompanying Juliet's cortege; the electric 'choreography' of the tomb scene, animating every frantic or pathetic gesture of the lovers' cross-purposes in death — are framed between a sort of resume or index of what's to come plus an aesthetic credo. To close, an operatic scena of reconciliation ensures by its fustian grandiloquence upon pedestrian material that the marvellous preceding music goes clean out of one's mind. The rationale behind the hotchpotch can be explained, even vindicated, by the loyal Berliozian — we can be made to see exactly what the composer thought he was doing — but the knowledge cannot make the thing work.

Admittedly, the great exception among these mixed-media hybrids goes equally contra to artistic sense (Berlioz is nothing if not perverse!). The glorious Damnation de Faust has, just this once, pacing and trajectory that is almost completely surefooted, and the music (save the concluding depiction a la Gustave Dore of Hell — cackling demons and smashes on the tamtam; and of Heaven — harps and haloes) is consistently on the heights over a wider range than usual of tones and textures. Which decidedly cannot be said for the operas on which he set his heart: Benvenuto Cellini near the beginning, Les Troyens. with Beatrice et Benedict at the end. In all these, places of characteristic piercing tenderness or infectious brio and vivid coloration are embedded in acres of plasterwork — almost surprising in this of all composers — 'without identifying characteristics'.

So what stands unmarred by such damaging flaws? Berlioz excels at orchestral songs (for a start). The adorable Les nuits d'ete are consummate in their evocation of fragile romantic mood-states; a further handful of supreme songs with orchestra ought to be as well-known and loved as this celebrated cycle, as also many isolated lyric and dramatic pieces for chorus with instruments. Every time I hear Tristia, a triptych consisting of a funeral march for Hamlet, a death-scene for Ophelia, plus, typically something else that doesn't really fit, I melt with ruth at the exquisite sense of timbre, contour, nuance, the intensity yet chastity of expression, the sheer specialness of this on-the-edge genius, revealed in such places all naked and uncompromisecl by dross.