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Recordings

Hector Berlioz: Harold en Italie, Les Nuits d'été
11 Dec 2018

Berlioz: Harold en Italie, Les Nuits d'été

Hector Berlioz Harold en Italie with François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles with Tabea Zimmermann, plus Stéphane Degout in Les Nuits d’été from Hamonia Mundi. This Harold en Italie, op. 16, H 68 (1834) captures the essence of Romantic yearning, expressed in Byron's Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage where the hero rejects convention to seek his destiny in uncharted territory.

Hector Berlioz: Harold en Italie, Les Nuits d'été

François-Xavier Roth, Les Siècles, Tabea Zimmermann, Stéphane Degout

Harmonia Mundi HMM902634[ SACD]

$19.98  Click to buy

This is what "Romanticism" meant to those who lived in the early and mid 19th century, very different indeed from what "romanticism" has come to mean since the mid 20th century. This helps frame Les Nuits d'été with baritone rather than the more common version for female voice. Berlioz has been a strong presence in the history of Les Siècles virtually since the orchestra was formed. they feature every year at the Berlioz Festival in La Côte-Saint-André. Roth established his Berlioz credentials early on, as assistant to Sir Colin Davis at the London Symphony Orchestra, and has also worked with Sir John Eliot Gardiner. "Berlioz", says Roth, "like other innovative orchestrators, brought out the best qualities of the instruments he had at his disposal at the time. He kept up with the latest developments in instrument making and, like a chef, was keen to use the right ingredient to season his musical recipe. It’s really exciting to encounter the original flavours of the instruments of his time because you realise almost instantly what these new combinations of timbres were". He adds "With Harold en Italie, things are much more complex: the viola is not a concertante soloist, as it would be in a Romantic concerto, but rather a musical character, a narrator, an actor in the story of Harold that is related to us. Berlioz invented a genuinely new role here in the relationship between the soloist and the orchestra. Roth often compares Harold en Italie to Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote "a symphonic poem with a principal cello which also seems to embody a character". Perhaps that was why Paganini was at first dismayed, since he had hoped for a vehicle for solo viola.

In the Romantic aesthetic, heroes are loners in a vast landscape, accentuating the monumental challenges before them. Berlioz's first movement is titled "Harold aux montagnes". Ominous figures loom up in the orchestra, ascendant lines stretching outwards. When Zimmermann enters, her line is quietly confident, garlanded by harp and winds. Just as the hero engages with the panorama, the viola engages with the orchestra : a good balance here, the soloist not overwhelmed by larger forces. As Roth himself writes, "Harold’s melody seeks to bring out these specific timbres and rhythms, the grain of the sound. (And here the decision of François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles to use period instruments once again demonstrates its importance, its necessity.) superimposed on the other orchestral voices, and contrasts with them in tempo and character without interrupting their development". The movement ends with a sense of adventure. In the "Marche des pèlerins", the understated melodic line in the orchestra suggests the humility of pilgrims, singing as they journey. Thus the arppegiated chords, the viola beside the orchestra.

In the third movement, the use of period instruments brings out the distinctive timbres and rhythms of folk music in the serenade and saltarello. The dances become drama in the "Orgie des Brigandes". Brigands, like gypsies in 19th century folklore, represent "natural" forces, freedom versus inhibition, danger versus comfort. Thus the quicksilver energy with which Les Siècles brings this movement to life : even the quieter figure before the entry of the viola bristles with anticipation. A glorious coda !

Berlioz orchestrated Les Nuits d'été op 7 for different voice types, though they are usually done by female singers, so there is no reason per se why they can't be tackled by men ; tenors have done them fairly frequently in the past. On this recording, paired with Harold en Italie, a male voice extends the idea of a "hero" bravely venturing forth. In any case, Stéphane Degout has the range and finesse. Indeed, a stronger, deeper voice highlights the punching rhythms in "Villanelle", and brings out the erotic allure in the line "Et dis-moi de ta voix si douce :'Toujours'.” The resonance of Degout's timbre also works well with the more elaboarate orchestration of "Le spectre de la Rose", which includes prominent parts for cello, clarinet, flute and harp. Berlioz orchestrated "Sur les lagunes" for baritone, so the fit between voice and the flowing "water" sounds in the orchestra. A soaring "Ah ! sans amour s’en aller sur la mer !". "Absence" is followed by a very good "Au Cimetière – Clair de Lune" where Degout restrains the inherent power in his voice, suggesting mystery. A stylish "L'île inconnue", further proof that it is not so much voice type that makes these songs work, but artistry.

Anne Ozorio

      

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