An account of Berlioz’s Harold in Italy that’s sure to exceed expectations.
Andrew McGregor 2012
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.