BERLIOZ: Beatrice and Benedict Ov.; Harold in Italy; PAGANINI: Sonata per la Gran Viola – David Aaron Carpenter, viola/ Helsinki Philharmonic /Vladimir Ashkenazy – Ondine

by | Sep 30, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews

BERLIOZ: Overture to Beatrice and Benedict; Harold in Italy; PAGANINI: Sonata per la Gran Viola e Orchestra – David Aaron Carpenter, viola/ Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy – Ondine ODE 1188-2, 64:37 (Distr. by Naxos) ****:
Hector Berlioz (1803-69) never learned to play an instrument; he wasn’t a child prodigy; he didn’t go to any music school; he taught himself composition and he fought his parents desire to become a doctor. Maybe that’s why he became the first French Romantic: the first to compose for a large modern orchestra; the first to compose music based on his own biography; the first to break rules of harmony and create a new kind of melody. His personality fit his musical persona: “his high brow, sharply cut over the deep-set eyes, his strongly aquiline hawk nose…the rather short chin, all crowned by an extraordinary abundance of light-brown curls whose fantastic awkwardness yielded not even to the constraining iron of the hairdresser – once you had seen that head you could not forget it,” wrote Ferdinand Hiller. No wonder that Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840), himself hardly conventional, was attracted to Berlioz.
When the two met at a concert in 1833, Paganini, having borrowed a 1731 Stradivari viola, asked Berlioz to write a composition for him. Berlioz complied by writing Harold in Italy (Symphony with viola obbligato), but when Paganini saw the sketch for the first movement, he uttered, “there’s not enough for me to do here. I should be playing all the time.” Berlioz had cut some viola passagework and then reinstated it for Paganini. It is this version, which is performed on this CD. Berlioz correctly saw the viola as a commentator on the composer’s wanderings in Italy rather than a solo concerto. Paganini was so moved by the work that he gave the composer 20,000 francs, saying ‘Beethoven being dead, only Berlioz could make him live again.’
The addition of the couple of extra minutes for the viola’s passageworks is less noticeable than the slower tempo of the first movement, “Harold in the Mountains,” which diminishes the drama and mystery that can be found in the score. The “Procession of the Pilgrims” is more meditative than a religious march and the Serenade becomes a bucolic, rather sweet journey for the woodwinds. That spell is shockingly broken by the Brigand’s Orgies – the final movement that also gives an opportunity for the viola to comment on its journey. Violist David Aaron Carpenter plays beautifully but this is a rather tepid Harold in Italy.
It was clever programming to include Paganini’s Sonata per la Gran Viola e Orchestra on this disc, as evidently it was the composer’s response to write a work that would give him a virtuosic showcase. It has attractive melodies, stately dances and ends with a set of buoyant variations for viola and orchestra. Carpenter dispatches everything with grace and elegance. The disc begins with a spirited performance of the overture to Berlioz’s comic opera Beatrice and Benedict, based on Shakespeare’s play, Much Ado About Nothing. 
—Robert Moon