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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Harold In Italy (1834-36, arr. Liszt) (Harold in the mountains – scenes of melancholy, happiness and joy [16.10]; March of Pilgrims singing the evening prayer [7.40]; Abruzzian mountain-dweller’s serenade to his mistress [6.25]; Orgy of the brigands. Reminiscences of earlier scenes [14.02])
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Nuages Gris (Gray Clouds) arr. viola and piano (1881) [2.24]
Romance Oubliée (Forgotten Romance) for viola and piano (1880) [3.33]
Oh! Quand je dors (Oh! When I Sleep) arr. viola and piano (1842/49) [4.19]
Schlaflos! Frage und Antwort (Sleep! Question and Answer) arr. viola and piano (1883) [2.22]
Jennifer Stumm (viola)
Elizabeth Pridgen (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, England, 8-10 August 2013

This is an adventurous programme that spotlights the viola, once dubbed as the ‘Cinderella of the Orchestra’. Here it is heard in probably the most famous piece ever written for the instrument, Berlioz’s half-symphony/half concerto, Harold in Italy. Plaudits are due to the young American violist, Jennifer Stumm whose concept this is – weaving together Liszt’s arrangement, a reduction for viola and piano of Berlioz’s original orchestral version, together with four aptly chosen, additional short pieces (originally for piano). These are by Liszt and here are placed before and between movements and after the Berlioz work to enhance the music and add atmosphere and meaning.

The Harold in Italy reduction works very well. Stumm plays a rare Maggini contralto viola c. 1600 and her tone is sturdy, rich and evocative. She communicates the restless soul that is Harold transported between deep melancholy and ecstatic joy in his seemingly endless quest to find meaning, an anchorage and love. She is aided by Elizabeth Pridgen’s enthusiastic and wholly committed accompaniment. Pridgen manages to retain much of the orchestral atmosphere, drama and excitement. She comes into her own with the wild whirlwind music that is the Orgy of the Brigands.

The very much shorter Liszt pieces impress. Nuages Gris that introduces the proceedings and highlights Harold’s questionings and wanderings. It is a misty, unclear evocation that is ambiguous and lacking in tonal direction. The Romance Oubliée is placed after we hear Harold’s uncertain wanderings in the mountains. Its doleful uncertain character seems to mirror Harold’s predicament. Oh! Quand Je Dors, coming after the Pilgrim Hymn and the Serenade of the third movement, is a Liszt setting: a song which is just a beautiful dream of love that seems beyond reach. Finally Schlaflos! Frage und Antwort ends again without resolution.

An interesting adventurous programme very well executed and well worth investigating.

Ian Lace