BERLIOZ Harold en Italie. Les nuits d’été (Roth)
How delightful that François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles have returned to Berlioz this year, the 150th anniversary of his death. In 2010 they recorded the Symphonie fantastique, revelling in period-instrument colours. Now they turn to a pair of key works: Harold en Italie and Les nuits d’été.
I’d always been a bit dismissive of Harold – a non-concerto for viola which so disappointed the virtuoso Nicolò Paganini after he saw sketches for the first movement that he stomped off in a huff. That was before I saw Antoine Tamestit’s revelatory performance at the BBC Proms last season where he demonstrated, in a peripatetic performance clambering about the Royal Albert Hall stage, that it’s a work where the viola – Harold – is not a protagonist but a curious observer; not at the centre of the action but skirting the edges.
Returning afresh to the work, this new recording with Tabea Zimmermann has much to recommend it. Roth takes his time. Harold broods circumspectly in the mountains of the first movement, taken at a steadier pace than other period accounts from Marc Minkowski’s Les Musiciens du Louvre or John Eliot Gardiner’s Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Zimmermann offers a darker, grainier tone than her earlier LSO Live account with Colin Davis but her approach hasn’t changed much. The Pilgrims trudge purposefully, while the viola’s sul ponticello (track 2 from 3'50") is as icy and otherworldly as one could imagine. The third-movement saltarello in the Abruzzi mountains goes with a real swing – Les Siècles’ woodwinds on wonderfully picaresque form – and Roth instils fire into the last movement’s orgy. Zimmermann is a prudish onlooker here, until Berlioz completely forgets about his soloist for 55 pages of the score – just imagine Paganini’s ire if he’d stuck around!
The song-cycle Les nuits d’été was composed – for single voice and piano – in 1841 at a time when Berlioz’s marriage to Harriet Smithson was unravelling. At this time, he was taking up with the mezzo Marie Recio, who seems to have been the inspiration for these songs to poems by Théophile Gautier. Berlioz orchestrated ‘Absence’ for Recio in 1843 but the rest of the songs had to wait until 1856 and were each dedicated to different singers … and different voice types. ‘Sur les lagunes’ was dedicated to the German baritone Hans von Milde. Recordings of the cycle by a baritone are rare – it is usually appropriated by mezzo-sopranos – but as the booklet writer Bruno Messina points out, ‘Male singers are not without their sensitive side, and the words leave room for a masculine perspective’.
One couldn’t imagine a more sensitive baritone than Stéphane Degout. Yet his burnished sound has plenty of muscle too, able to splice the air at the line ‘J’arrive du Paradis’ in ‘Le spectre de la rose’ so easily that it’s (nearly) possible to momentarily forget glorious mezzos like Susan Graham. Degout plunges the depths of despair in ‘Sur les lagunes’ and ‘Au cimetière’, his baritone less clouded than José van Dam’s recordings (both of the orchestral and piano versions). Perhaps the finale, ‘L’île inconnue’, doesn’t tease quite as much as it could but the burbling Siècles woodwinds are joyous all the same, sailing off on a voyage who knows where.