BERLIOZ: Harold in Italy – Lawrence Power, viola/ Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/ Andrew Manze – Hyperion 

by | May 2, 2018 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews

BERLIOZ: Harold in Italy, Op. 16; La captive, Op. 12; Plaisir d’amour; WEBER: Andante and Rondo ungarese, Op. 35; Invitation to the Dance, Op. 65 – Lawrence Power, viola/ Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/ Andrew Manze – Hyperion CDA68193, 71:11 (4/27/18) [Distr. Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

In 1834, Nicolo Paganini approached Berlioz with a commission for a major work to highlight a new Stradivarius viola the Italian virtuoso had acquired.  When presented with the finished first movement, Paganini rejected the score, complaining of its “too many rests, while I should active all the time.”  Berlioz had come to Italy as a result of his winning the Prix de Rome in 1830, and his sixteen months in that country, while an interruption of his plans to marry pianist Camille Moke and continue his debut for the Symphonie fantastique, did present Berlioz with the opportunity to relish the Italian countryside while reading his new bible, the poetic works of Lord Byron.  Berlioz decided to turn his “second symphony” into a “program,” four-movement tableaux utilizing a “Harold theme” that should remain intact in spite of the dramatic scenes into which the protagonist is cast. In another moment of autobiographical hyperbole, Berlioz described his new work as one in which “wine, blood, joy and rage mingle in mutual intoxication and make music together.”

The symphony begins rather sluggishly, as if to portray the spiritual languor into which Byron’s disaffected hero has fallen. Harold wanders amid the mountains, melancholy; but his inertia soon converts into wanderlust, the G minor’s modulating into G Major by way of modified sonata-form and fugato, at once demonstrating the Berlioz facility for color and orchestral effect. The entry of Power’s viola, accompanied by the winds and harp, enjoys a youthful luster. The main melody, a swaggering tune in 6/8, receives the typical sonata-form development, rife with syncopations that attest to the Berlioz gift for rhythmic as well as melodic alchemy.

Hector Berlioz

The “March of the Pilgrims” second movement opens in E Major with an extremely soft quadruple piano indication, moving to forte and back again. The procession approaches—here, Manze’s tempo seems a compromise between Beecham and Munch’s deliberate pace and the breezy assurance of Koussevitzky, whose performance in spite of its rhythmic solecisms, remains my favorite—with a trudging gait that ends with a peal on C in the horns and harp and B in the flute, oboe and harp. The music approximates a chorale that elicits from the viola a series of arpeggios, a sort of bariolage, on the bridge of the instrument. The bell tone diminishes in dynamics, while the march tune in pizzicato fades away, leaving “Harold” to muse into the vast reaches of space.

While in Italy, Berlioz encountered the pifferari, strolling wind players who inspired the energetic Serenade of the Abruzzi Mountaineer to His Mistress.  Oboe and piccolo set the mood over a drone bass and ostinato violas. An Allegretto ensues, featuring the English horn that soon intertwines with the “Harold” motif, especially in the horns.  The “aerial” warbles of the winds and horns, complemented by Power’s viola, enchant. The Allegro returns, which quickly combines the two sections, even as the flute and harp intone the Harold theme in its lonely mountain perch.  With a whirl of syncopation, the finale Orgie de brigands – Souvenirs des scenes precedentes opens, fortissimo. Paganini had claimed, “Beethoven is dead, and Berlioz alone can revive him.” So be it: following Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony finale, Berlioz recaps each of the tunes of his prior movements, rejecting each until even the “Harold” tune disappears. Now, free of Harold’s gloom, the orchestra unleashes in vivid Technicolor (rec. 4-7 May 2017) the brigands’ bacchanal, and the Bergen Philharmonic battery has its day in the sun. After a repetition of the revelries does the music break off, giving us first two violins and cello, offstage, and then the viola’s truly lyrical response, where Power can emulate the great tone recorded for posterity by the late William Primrose. The reminiscence combines with the orgiastic tumult to a con fuoco conclusion of shattering impact.  Tchaikovsky, in his own “Byronic” mode in his Manfred Symphony, will duplicate in his own bacchanal much of what Berlioz models here.

Le Captive constitutes the ninth of Victor Hugo’s Orientales (1832), a touching souvenir in strophic form for mezzo-soprano and orchestra—here in Andrew Manze’s transcription for viola—a miniature of Berlioz’s Prix de Rome sojourn—much as Harold in Italy and Benvenuto Cellini. It pleased Berlioz to program so charming a melody, a song by a young woman captured for the life in a harem, for his Paris concerts, refashioning it through six different versions, this one orchestrated by the composer in 1848. The color (bolero) elements and harmony absolutely seduce, from the use of muted strings, the flute riffs, the double-basses tuned down to low D, and cymbal and bass drum’s evaporating into space. In 1859 Berlioz set one of his favorite musical moments of his youth, Martini’s 1784 poem Plaisir d’amour, for voice and a small orchestra of flutes, clarinets, horns, and strings. Montgomery Clift sings the lyric for Olivia de Haviland in The Heiress.

Violist Power has an effective vehicle in Carl Maria von Weber’s 1809—debuted in 1816—Andante und Rondo ungarese, originally conceived for bassoon, but even more effective for the viola. The piece, effective as it is, remained suppressed until its publication in 1938. A theme and variations in the Andante, the piece displays the viola’s lyric capacities, then it uses a “fate-motif” to segue into rollicking, Hungarian, slinky tune that might well have set Liszt’s foot tapping. Long an admirer of Weber, Berlioz felt obligated to orchestrate Weber’s 1819 piano piece Invitation to the Dance for an 1841 Paris Opera production of Der Freischuetz, serving as the obligatory ballet, transposing the whole up a semitone to D. The male dancer receives the solo cello part; the female dancer finds her voice in the clarinet. The Allegro vivace contains that brilliant scoring of Berlioz, with seamless string work, searing tuttis, late trombone entries, woodwind unison passages, piccolo and flute runs, and harp figurations. Manze keeps the movement light and transparently fluid, glittering and lavish at once. Recording Producer Andrew Keener and Recording Engineer Simon Eadon add another stunning sound document to their impressive elgacy.

—Gary Lemco