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BERLIOZ: Harold in Italie, Op. 16; Les Nuits d’ete. Op. 7 – Stephane Gegout, baritone/ Tabea Zimmermann, viola/ Les Siecles/ Francois-Xavier Roth – Harmonia mundi HMM 902634, 63:43 (1/18/19) ****:

Recorded in March and August of 2018, these recent performances of two seminal works of Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) remind us of the composer’s 150th anniversary of his death; but more importantly, they refresh our appreciation of the composer’s unique musical achievement.  The use of an idee fixe the ubiquitous 1830 Symphonie fantastique plays no less an important role in the 1834 concertante, symphonic tone-cycle based on Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. While the idee fixe in the Fantastic Symphony undergoes various sorts of (grotesque) metamorphosis, in Harold it remains a constant, expressing inward sensibility, anxiety, exuberance, and virile resolve. While traveling about Italy as a kind of consolation for his absent beloved Henrietta Smithson, Berlioz eagerly consumed the romantic poetry of that ‘notorious’ poetic personality, Lord Byron – reputed as “bad, mad, and dangerous to know” – so as to absorb the “ardent” and “audacious” evocations of the spirit of imaginative adventure. The most immediate “cause” for the piece occurs when Niccolo Paganini demands of Berlioz a large piece to show off his new Stradivarius viola.

Viola player extraordinaire Tabea Zimmermann (b. 1966) recorded Harold in Italy a generation ago with conductor Colin Davis. Her especial viola, a 1980 instrument created by Etienne Vatelot, carries a superior, throaty and burnished tone. The first movement, entitled “Harold in the Mountains,” proceeds slowly, working out an elaborate fugue from whose gloomy intricacies Harold will extricate himself with a sense of exuberant liberation.  Conductor Roth utilizes an orchestra composed of original instruments, thinning the texture and permitting a greater, focused intensity on Zimmermann’s voice.  For this reviewer, the result loses something of dynamism in the Berlioz fortes. I find the tempo of the second movement, the Pilgrim’s March, too slow, but the brilliant originality of the movement surfaces once more: 16 repetitions of the march theme, an ostinato bass theme, an equally fixated series of bariolage effects for the viola sul ponticello, and clashing harmonies in B and C as horns, harps, oboes, and flutes clash eleven times before a resolution in E Major.

The third movement of the work, Serenade d’un Montagnard des Abruzzes a sa maitresse, has its melodic roots in the 1831 Overture to Rob Roy, with its “Scottish” influences.  Here, the Berlioz sense of individual color reigns supreme: the jaunty tune, the piccolo and oboe effects, the rustic open fifth of a bagpipe’s drone, the English horn over meandering harmony. All the while, Zimmermann’s throaty viola sings in lyric effusion of the joys of the Italian mountain life Berlioz celebrates in his Memoirs: “the long series of joyous and gay refrains repeated by wandering piffero (fife) players who occupy the mountain regions.”

The last movement, Orgie de brigands, follows Beethoven’s lead in the Ninth Symphony, recalling prior themes; but unlike Beethoven, Berlioz retains them affectionately rather than dismissing them for an entirely new motif. The conceited version of a “brigand” focused on his return to Nature – a la Rousseau – as an antidote to the evils of society. Berlioz employs a world of special effects, including disjunctions in the rhythm to convey the combination of unabashed bacchanal and demonic revelry. Yet, even in the midst of moral miasma with its lack of clear bar lines, Berlioz injects moments spiritual quietude and meditation, transparently realized, as Harold stands apart, a witness but not a demonized votary. Conductor Roth, having sense my impatience in the Pilgrims’ March, accelerated into a tempo feroce for the tutti sections, which Berlioz carefully orchestrated in every detail, including the number of beats in the tambourines. We have a special performance; here, and listen carefully to the combination of Zimmermann with the offstage string trio.  The crescendo vaults to an overwhelming sense of dramatic (trombone) closure, an apotheosis of the Romantic spirit.

The pleasures of hearing the 1841 Berlioz song-cycle Les Nuits d’ete (revised in 1856 for orchestra) as sung by the baritone voice first came to me by way of American baritone Thomas Hampson.  Berlioz adapted texts (in various keys) from his friend, poet Theophile Gautier (1811-1872), a collection entitled La Comedie de la Mort (1838).  The connecting theme, death, manifests itself in various contexts: in Le Spectre de la Rose, a withered flower narrates its death on the bosom of a young girl at a ballroom dance. Mesmeric and macabre, the music achieves an eerie beauty. The third song, Sur les lagunes, has a bereft boatman lament his lonely fate, to play his trade in the midst of the surging sea.  Absence measures time as eternal longing: thrice the narrator begs, “Return, return, my beloved!” The Berlioz harmony and use of recitative extends the fatal sense of irony and frustration. The fifth song, Au cemetiere – Clair de lune, takes us into the supernatural realm, perhaps toying with Poe’s eternal fear of premature burial. Baritone Degout must sing in “quarter-voice” to achieve the required effect, sinister and mysterious, at once.  Echoes of Poe’s “The Raven” haunt Gautier: he has an apparition whisper, “tu reviendras,” you will come back, to which the narrator exclaims, Jamais plus – Poe’s “nevermore.”  The last song contains perhaps the direst ambiguity: a magical ship stands – seemingly exuberant – at the ready to transport the narrator and his beloved – but where? Wind and waves inform against the journey, now fraught with detours. Then, the beloved expresses her desire for the shore of faithful love, a harbor seldom visited! And how must we perceive this “invitation,” except with existential doubt. Already a master of color and nuance, Berlioz crafts a muscular yet shadowy journey of the Romantic soul, the musical analogy for Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.”

–Gary Lemco