BERLIOZ Harold in Italy
Chandos’s new release continues a potential Berlioz cycle from Sir Andrew, following his well-received Overtures disc with the Bergen Philharmonic (5/13). This release neatly rounds up the loose ends of Rêverie et Caprice (the composer’s only solo violin work) and the still strangely neglected Rob Roy, Berlioz’s second Walter Scott-based overture, which makes teasing use of the patriotic ballad ‘Scots wha hae wi Wallace bled’. The Paris Conservatoire audience of 1833 didn’t like it at all but two of the melodies were moved seamlessly from the Scottish to the Italian mountains the following year when Berlioz began his Byron-based viola work for Paganini.
Concerto or symphony? Not enough of the former, thought the celebrity-conscious string virtuoso at first – and that issue has sometimes become a more practical musical one of basic balance between soloist and modern orchestra. How naturally that problem is swept away, however, is made apparent by the success of the ‘original’ instrument recordings under John Eliot Gardiner (Philips, 8/96) and Marc Minkowski (Naïve, 2/12), the latter in its pacing and pretty well operatic narrative clarity a worthy follow-up to his Symphonie fantastique. Like Beecham (with William Primrose, studio, or Frederick Riddle, live, and the RPO), Minkowski and his Musiciens du Louvre attack the sudden dynamic and harmonic surprises in the outer movements with limitless glee. And the ‘old’ instrument balance more than takes care of letting the soloist be heard.
For Chandos in Australia, Davis and his production team have worked hard to keep James Ehnes’s quite ravishingly beautiful playing in focus. The Melbourners play this still testing score well for their Chief Conductor. It sounds as if Davis sees the work as more lyrical and Romantic – a true stablemate of Mendelssohn’s almost exactly contemporary Italian Symphony – than as a sequel to the experimentation of the Fantastique. As such he relishes the cut and thrust of programmatic mountain danger less than Minkowski or Beecham. But he sets his soloist off well and gives worthwhile accounts of the shorter pieces.