Notes and Editorial Reviews
Harold in Italy was commissioned from Berlioz by the virtuoso violinist Paganini, who wanted something to show off his fine new viola. Actually, that’s not quite true; Paganini thought he was paying for a flashy concerto, but what he got was a symphonic poem. The viola plays the part of Byron’s Childe Harold, while Berlioz relives his own happy memories of travelling the wilds of Italy, meeting the locals in the mountains, encountering priests, brigands, and travelling musicians. Paganini was disappointed, and never played it… and despite an enthusiasm for most Berlioz, I’ve tended to agree with Paganini, and never quite hit it off with Harold. Until now.
Why the change of heart? Well, let’s look at the forces: Mark
Minkowski’s ensemble Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble on period instruments, and for a band that began with the baroque, this is serious mission-creep, and their approach changes things in all kinds of subtle ways. Antoine Tamestit is the viola soloist, and from his gentle, folk-like first entry, and the breathless hush with which it’s echoed, there’s genuine intimacy, and the most delicate accompaniment. The plangent melancholy of the solo viola’s upper reaches contrasts beautifully with its woody depths; there’s the piquant edge of the winds, the purposeful gleam of brass; darker colours and lighter textures than a modern orchestra, and a subtle rebalancing of dynamics – so much seems like chamber music. Minkowski finds a lightning-fast response to Berlioz’s sudden outbursts, easily flowing tempos, and scurrying strings and razor-sharp attack in the Brigands’ Orgy – and everything worked out with Paganini, who was dazzled by the score when he finally heard it.
The same sense of seductive intimacy pervades Berlioz’s song cycle Summer Nights, and while mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter may not have quite the purity of tone which graced her previous recording, she seems to emerge from inside these songs, and the deliciously moulded accompaniments support her with grace and rare sensitivity. The transparency and detail are a tribute to the recording as well as the playing, the booklet is luxuriously appointed with evocative landscapes, and there’s a nice bonus: Otter and Tamestit together at the end for Marguerite’s song of the King of Thule from Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust. I’ll be damned: at last an account of Berlioz’s Harold I want to keep.
Andrew McGregor, BBC Music [1/27/2012]
Several of Berlioz’s works have been recorded using period instruments, among them the
Symphonie Fantastique and the
Grande Messe des Morts. However, I can’t readily recall many period performances of
Harold en Italie. Sir John Eliot Gardiner made a very fine recording with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and violist Gérard Caussé for Philips but that was way back in 1994 and I’m not sure that it’s currently available. So Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble seem to have the field pretty much to themselves.
I’m happy to be able to report to anyone wanting a version of this work on period instruments that this new recording should more than meet their needs. Minkowski conducts with flair and his orchestra is excellent. Berlioz was one of music’s most innovative orchestrators and period instruments can bring out the tangy, original colours of his scoring exceptionally well. It’s a joy to hear the orchestral score in a performance of this quality; and that’s an observation that applies to the other music on the disc as well.
Right from the start of
Harold the grainy strings and slightly rasping brass are a delight. When the solo viola enters (track 1, 2:59) the husky tone is beautifully set against the pastel shades of the accompaniment, chiefly the gently rippling harp and cooing clarinets. Hereabouts, Antoine Tamestit, a splendid soloist, conveys the melancholy air of Harold very well indeed. Later in the movement Minkowski whips up the music excitingly. Though I’m a great Berlioz fan I have to admit that the second movement doesn’t seem to me to be one of his most interesting movements. Moreover, the viola part is so uneventful that it’s not hard to see why Paganini, having commissioned the work, wasn’t interested in playing it – though, to his great credit he not only expressed admiration for the piece when he heard it performed but also paid Berlioz the agreed fee.
In the third movement Minkowski ensures that the music lilts most persuasively. There’s an excellent and entirely appropriate rustic feel in this performance. There’s tremendous drive and spirit in the finale. Minkowski and his orchestra dispatch the Orgy of Brigands with gusto and
élan. Here, as elsewhere in the score, the primary colours of Berlioz’s score are brought to life vividly. I think it helps that the recording is quite close – though by no means oppressively so – and this, plus the transparency of the period instruments, means that a welcome amount of detail registers.
Les Nuits d’Été is equally successful. Anne Sofie von Otter is a singer I admire very much though sometimes she can seem a little cool. That’s not the case here. For example, she offers some ardent singing in ‘Sur les lagunes’. This is a darkly passionate setting and Miss von Otter really communicates expressive grief. By contrast, in the opening song, ‘Villanelle’, we hear her at her most engaging in a light, eager rendition of the song. In ‘Absence’ her control in the refrain ‘Reviens, reviens, ma bien-aimée’ is wonderful – as is that of the supporting players. She and Minkowski combine to invest ‘L’Île inconnue’ with a surge of buoyant energy. This delightful, happy reading is a fine end to an excellent account of the cycle. Once again the orchestra more than plays its part in the success of the performance. The lively tempo and alert playing in ‘Villanelle’ is a delight – especially the chattering woodwinds. At the start of ‘Le Spectre de la rose’ the grainy strings under the unison flute and clarinet provide a lovely mixture of timbres, supporting the singer’s poised delivery of a beautiful, sustaine
d line. The nutty orchestral timbres are an important feature in ‘Sur les lagunes’.
Finally, to complete our pleasure, Miss von Otter and Antoine Tamestit come together to give a fine performance of ‘Le Roi de Thulé’. Here the plangent viola tone is a perfect foil for von Otter’s gently wistful singing.
This is a very fine disc and also a fascinating one which I urge all Berlioz admirers to hear. Not only are the performances extremely good but also the production values are high. This applies to the recorded sound, which, as I’ve already indicated, is good. Even more does it apply to the sumptuous booklet which is beautifully illustrated. The booklet also includes, in addition to a useful note, an extract from Berlioz’s
Harold en Italie.
This is one of the most stimulating Berlioz releases that I’ve heard in recent years.
-- John Quinn, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Harold en Italie, Op. 16 by Hector Berlioz
Antoine Tamestit (Viola)
Les Musiciens du Louvre
Written: 1834; France
Les nuits d'été, Op. 7 by Hector Berlioz
Anne Sofie von Otter (Mezzo Soprano)
Les Musiciens du Louvre
Written: 1840-1841; France
Harold en Italie, Op. 16: I. Adagio (Harold in the Mountains. Scenes of Melancholy, Happiness and Joy)
Harold en Italie, Op. 16: II. Allegretto (March of the Pilgrims Singing the Evening Prayer)
Harold en Italie, Op. 16: III. Allegro Assai (Serenade of an Abruzzi Mountain-Dweller to his Mistress)
Harold en Italie, Op. 16: IV. Allegro Frenetico (Orgy of Brigands. Memories of Scenes Past)
Les nuits d'ete, Op. 7: No. 1. Villanelle
Les nuits d'ete, Op. 7: No. 2. Le Spectre de la rose
Les nuits d'ete, Op. 7: No. 3. Sur les lagunes
Les nuits d'ete, Op. 7: No. 4. Absence
Les nuits d'ete, Op. 7: No. 5. Au cimetiere
Les nuits d'ete, Op. 7: No. 6. L'Ile inconnue
La damnation de Faust, Op. 24: Part III: Autrefois un roi de Thule, "The King of Thule"
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