BERLIOZ: Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14a & Harold in Italie, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach

by | Dec 22, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

BERLIOZ: Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14a & Harold in Italie, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach

Performers: Tabea Zimermann, viola/ Orchestre de Paris
Director: Andy Sommer 
Studio: Bel Air Classiques DVD BAC016
Video: 16:9, color
Audio: PCM Stereo
Length: 103 minutes
Rating: ****

From the opening iris shot we are engaged in Christoph Eschenbach’s riveting performance of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique (14 February 2001) with an eminently youthful Orchestre de Paris. Is it an open dress rehearsal, or has Eschenbach simply dismissed the usual concert garb? Very close camera work on Eschenbach’s face and hands, his expressive gestures quite intense, certainly revealing none of the closed-eyes sang-froid which characterized one of his mentors, Karajan. The video provides Berlioz’ written program prior to each of the five movements. The players of the Paris orchestra are decidedly attentive to their conductor, despite their long tradition with this music as far back as Munch and Martinon.

Extensive use of overhead shots, juxtaposed against horizontal shots, move the music even faster than the assigned musical tempos. The visuals proceed so rapidly that they may distract from the strictly aural experience, although the French horn, oboe, and English horn solos compelled my attention, the undercurrent of strings ready to break forth at any time. When the whirlwind does come in the opening movement, repeat included, it has a chilling effect. The hurly-burly of the ball scene, two harps in full stride. A genuinely nice move is turning the camera on its side, then cutting to the harps and strings, increasing the unease of this glamorous waltz, whose heroine is never quite “fixed” in the mind of our musical persona. Smiles from Eschenbach mark his pleasure at the whirling frisson of this etched rendition. The Scene in the Country declares that two shepherds make melody to Nature. English horn, oboe, figures that point at Tristan und Isolde. Low strings in long-held notes, an eerie pedal point. The storm sequence never sounded so close to Beethoven’s Pastoral. The Beloved has become a force of Nature, not particularly benign. Lovely clarinet solo that leads to the tutti strings in cross-rhythm. The flute solo weaves its own magic, Eschenbach’s eyes expanding, his subito focused, a legacy of studies with George Szell. The tympani makes his presence felt, along with English horn’s especial timbre, a snake about to charm its victim to death.

Each man kills the thing he loves. Controlled mezzo forte until the big chord, then the bizarre appearance of the Beloved in the midst of militant dissonances. Bassoon and plucked strings lead us into temptation, Eschenbach the military bandmaster–he takes the repeat–a rarity. The galloping stride anticipates much of the Ride to the Abyss in The Damnation of Faust. The fugato is shot on the camera’s side, quick-cutting to Eschenach’s fevered face. Quite likely, he has become Berlioz’ tormented spirit. Head lopped off, the pizzicati bounce it down to the receiving basket. The crowd roars. The point of a bow ushers in the Witches’ Sabbath. Macbeth and Hamlet were among Berlioz favorite Shakespeare, Henrietta Smithson notwithstanding. Great tympani shot sideways back to Eschenbach, then the wicked parody of the Beloved and the trumpet fanfare. Camerawork is as hysterical as the music. Church bells (as Berlioz indicated) announce the death of Berlioz’ soul. Another massive fugue, shot through the tympani to the strings. Musically pointed and great fun, this enchanted reading of Berlioz’ sensational “First Symphony” will do for quite some time.

Big eyes and large gestures for the opening of the Harold in Italie Symphony (15 February 2001) with Tabea Zimmermann. Crescendo with horns and harp, and Ms. Zimmermann’s silken viola is at hand. In the style of a Scottish ballad, she sets the tone, a fairy tale epic on melancholy and dreamy Byronic themes. Zimmermann and Eschenbach create a highland romance before us. The last movement of Beethoven’s First Symphony makes its staggered presence known. Singing and dancing together, Zimmermann and Eschenbach glide through the mountains within the same camera frame. Nice recap shot of harp, Zimmermann, Eschenbach, and the host of active strings, all spewing passionate energy.

The Evening Prayer of Traveling Pilgrims has a tempo just between Beecham’s pesant march and Koussevitzky’s hurried andante. Zimmermann takes the long line, and Eschenbach breezes along with lyrical strides. The balanced phrases keep Zimmermann in thrall, then she adds her own variant to the mix, a chant soon punctuated by low horns. The pulse continues through Zimmermann’s bariolage and harmonics. The music becomes a plaintive whisper, then a muted clarion, then only the pedal point from the viola over muted strings.

From spiritual to sensual life, we gather for the Mountain Serenade, a love song without guile or guilt. Even the piccolo player smiles. Oboe, clarinet, and viola intertwine in caressing harmony, with French horn to indicate Nature’s response. Zimmermann and Eschenbach are in full tilt, right up to the ternary A section. The florid melody even had me whistling along with the sheer outdoor abandon of the performance. Lovely flute accompaniment had the nearby clarinet smiling at him. After the opening chord of the Orgy of the Brigands, the Harold theme juxtaposes against fragments of the preceding movements, so Paganini’s request for a viola solo is answered with shades of Beethoven’s Ninth. A lovers’ dialogue between Eschenbach and Zimmermann with flute for the first movement reverie, with its bits from Rob Roy. The viola can take a well-earned rest for the explosive orgy, a bacchanalia that leads us musically to Tchaikovsky. Kitchen-sink music, all the effects. Right out of the Montagues and Capulets, the viola returns to sing its chant of peace. The concertante episode concluded, the battery and strings hurl themselves into a pantheistic oblivion, trumpets blazing, with Scotland, Spain, and France all rolled into one ball, with world enough and time.

— Gary Lemco

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