BERLIOZ Harold en Italie (Manze)
What’s the longest viola joke in the world? Harold in Italy. It didn’t make Niccolò Paganini laugh though. The virtuoso fiddler, having acquired a Stradivarius viola, tried to persuade Hector Berlioz to write something to show off the instrument. When he saw the sketches for the first movement were peppered with long rests, Paganini was disappointed. ‘What you want is a viola concerto’, sighed Berlioz, suggesting Paganini would be better writing one himself. After Paganini had gone off in a huff, Berlioz developed the work into a four-movement successor to his Symphonie fantastique, a symphony with a viola obbligato acting as ‘melancholy dreamer in the manner of Byron’s Childe-Harold’. It’s difficult to see how viola players find it an attractive proposition – 40 minutes of music which can run out of steam, where the soloist gets little chance to shine – and yet, like Lawrence Power here, they queue up to record it. Indeed, Antoine Tamestit has set it down twice.
Power’s mellow tone makes for a poetic reading as the Byronic brooder, his echo of the opening theme as delicate as gossamer. Andrew Manze leads Power and the Bergen Philharmonic on a swift hike across the Alps, keeping meandering to a minimum. The Pilgrims’ March is brisk, the Bergen horn’s tolling C naturals beautifully caught in Hyperion’s recording. Power conjures a particularly glassy sul ponticello in his arpeggios here. The skirling tune opening the third movement evokes the strolling wind players Berlioz encountered in the Abruzzi mountains. Manze goes off like a rocket here, rather like Leonard Slatkin in Lyon, even if the Bergen woodwinds aren’t quite as characterful. The Brigands’ orgy is pretty tame as orgies go; Manze keeps things rhythmically taut and it’s certainly more lively than Gergiev’s trudge in Tamestit’s second recording. It’s the cleaner textures of Tamestit’s earlier recording though – on period instruments with Les Musiciens du Louvre – which act as the work’s most convincing advocate. Hyperion doesn’t place the viola too far into the spotlight. Berlioz would have approved, even if Paganini wouldn’t.
The disc is attractively padded out with a couple of mezzo-soprano songs arranged for viola by Manze, along with Weber’s Andante and Rondo ungarese, usually known in its bassoon incarnation, its jaunty rondo good fun. It’s followed by Berlioz’s orchestration of The Invitation to the Dance, which arguably contains the best music on the disc.