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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Harold in Italy, Op.16* [42.24]
Roman Carnival Overture, Op.9 [8.43]
Reverie and Caprice, Op.8+ [8.44]
Benvenuto Cellini: Overture, Op.23 [10.49]
*Lise Berthaud (viola), +Giovanni Radivo (violin)
Lyon National Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
rec. Auditorium de Lyon, 24 and 26 October 2013
NAXOS 8.573297 [70.31]

It can come as quite a shock to a critic when, looking at the back of a CD he has been sent to review, he finds his own words trumpeted back at him. That was my experience when this release quotes my own review of October 2012 in respect of Slatkin’s Naxos recording of the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique: “quite simply one of the best on disc”. I shall accordingly take the opportunity occasionally to refer back to that review during the course of writing this one.
 
In the first place it is a real pleasure to find Slatkin and his Lyon players returning to the symphonies of Berlioz, for so long in the past neglected by French orchestras. In the second place it is also a pleasure to encounter again the playing of violist Lise Berthaud, whose performance in the Bruch Double Concerto I welcomed for the Seen and Heard pages of this site in June of this year. And it is also a pleasure to hear that Berthaud’s superb playing is integrated into the orchestral score without unnatural highlighting. Harold in Italy, despite its origins as a display piece for Paganini, is decidedly not a concerto – as Paganini himself recognised. It is rather a symphonic poem in four movements with the viola taking the part of a protagonist among equals. Many recordings with starry names, from Yehudi Menuhin onwards, have spotlighted the soloist, to the disadvantage of the music. Berthaud is never swamped here, but she is observed in a natural perspective which adds dramatic unity to the score.
 
I might take some issue with the strength of the violin body in places here. Berlioz generally asked for at least fourteen each of first and second violins — not that he generally managed to get them — and his orchestral balances were nicely judged with that sort of strength in mind. This is more than the usual symphonic strength carried by most orchestras. Whereas Wagner and Strauss with their elaborate string divisions made it impossible to perform their scores with fewer than the demanded numbers, Berlioz was less particular. It seems that a normal symphonic complement of twenty or so violins is employed here; that number is shown in the booklet photograph. For much of the time, and in the louder passages, the balance is eminently satisfactory; but there are places (for example, track 1, 5.51) where the quiet string figurative decorations are hardly audible. Also, at the beginning of the Pilgrim’s March (track 2) the pianissimo woodwind bell sounds are so noticeably louder than the ppp string melody that the tune of the march is somewhat obscured. Berlioz himself gives very specific instructions regarding this in the score, although they are not always free from obscurity of meaning; surely the intention is that the melody should sound louder than the accompanying bell, despite the contradictory dynamic markings. The Pilgrims themselves progress at quite a sprightly pace, but no faster than Berlioz’s metronome marking and indication of Allegretto at the head of the movement.
 
When reviewing the Symphonie fantastique, I did complain that Slatkin and his players tended to smooth the rough edges of the music away to some extent. In the less exuberant and more classically constructed Harold in Italy this is less of a problem, but there is one point, at the climaxes of the Orgy of the Brigands (track 4, 5.05 and 8.28), where one might welcome a little more sheer venom from the violins in their repeated quaver oscillations. Colin Davis among others separates the individual violin notes here with a real martellato attack, although Berlioz makes no such indication beyond the marking of sempre f. Here Slatkin, in conformity with the score, has the violins playing with more legato binding between the notes, but the result lacks the sense of sheer visceral excitement that one can find elsewhere.
 
As a filler, Slatkin enterprisingly presents us with the three orchestral pieces that Berlioz extracted from his opera Benvenuto Cellini following its disastrous Paris première in 1838, many years before Liszt’s triumphant vindication of the work in Weimar. All three have plenty of excitement, as well as playing which copes brilliantly with the tricky rhythmic cross-syncopations in the Roman Carnival Overture. Giovanni Radivo produces beautiful tone and poise in the Reverie and Caprice. It seems odd to conclude with Overture to the opera itself, but then Slatkin may not have intended the three items to be treated as an ‘operatic suite’.
 
The recording, as in the case of the previous Symphonie fantastique, is superb. Despite the fact that we are told that the performances were “recorded live” there is no sign of any audience presence, not even applause at the end of items. Applause would have been well deserved. The balance throughout is truthful, as I have indicated, and the offstage strings at the end of Harold (track 4, 10.29) have just the right sense of mysterious distance. Keith Anderson’s comprehensive notes are provided in English with French translation. I hope that Slatkin and his Lyon forces will go on to explore more of the Berlioz repertoire, and look forward to the results.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey