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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Harold en Italie, Op. 16 (1834) [42:24]
Overture: Le carnaval romain, Op. 9 (1843-4) [8:43]
RÍverie et caprice, Op. 8 (1841) [8:44]
Overture: Benvenuto Cellini, Op. 23 (1836) [10:49]
Lise Berthaud (viola)
Giovanni Radivo (violin)
Orchestre National de Lyon/Leonard Slatkin
rec. live, Auditorium de Lyon, France, October 2013
NAXOS 8.573297 [70:31]

Leonard Slatkin has amassed a formidable discography over the decades, and there isn't a whole lot of standard repertoire left for him to explore. Even so, someone at Naxos might have noticed that the competent, phlegmatic conductor might be badly matched to the volatile and unconventional Berlioz.

The opening of Harold is suitably mysterious; violist Lise Berthaud spins out her theme in a spacious hush, though without the sense of suspension that would have made it special. The orchestra takes it up with some swing at first; later in the movement, however, the syncopations and other off-beat accents, even in tutti, miss any sense of propulsion or even relish.

Thus it goes, over and over: passages that want dynamism and quick reactions are presented with well-prepared squareness. Fussy, self-consciously detached articulations render the Pilgrims' March plodding, though the tempo as such isn't too slow; the passage beginning at 4:00, where the viola arpeggiates over light orchestral textures, spins out endlessly, not the good way. At the start of the Serenade, the sustained winds obscure the galloping rhythm. The movement's serene central section is the best part of the performance: smooth and flowing, with a good sense of direction.

In the finale's recap of earlier themes, Berthaud is expressive, anguished and affirmative by turns. The tuttis are compact and brilliant at first, becoming a bit nervous and slapdash as the movement proceeds. The back-and-forth dialogues between strings and winds are fetchingly crisp, but the trombone triplets that follow each of those episodes are lumpish rather than ominous.

Among the makeweights, the RÍverie et caprice for violin is a nice change of pace. It used to turn up regularly in LP days, in the sort of collection that would include Saint-SaŽns's Introduction et rondo capriccioso, Ravel's Tzigane, and such, but it's more mercurial than those knock-'em-out blockbusters. Giovanni Radivo's playing is clear, with a slight "register break" like a singer's: down on the G string, his tone turns surprisingly dark. The orchestral woodwinds limn their solos clearly and expressively.

The overtures are less distinctive. The initial attacks of Roman Carnival are incisive, but the answers are indifferent, the little run smeared. The attractive, musical English horn solo could use a smidgen more breathing room; the woodwind runs later on are careful rather than unbuttoned. In Benvenuto Cellini, the opening tutti sounds oddly hearty, rather than lithe and athletic. Slatkin does show a good feeling for the main theme's broad, singing quality, and for the textural contrasts in the following passage. The perky woodwind theme at 4:13 is crisp, articulate, and spontaneous, but the ensuing tutti bogs down; the closing section is a cheerful, organized, but ultimately inert ruckus.

As the preceding remarks might suggest, the orchestra is responsive and tonally polished, though the string sections sound understaffed in parts of the Harold finale. The recording's mild ambience is noticeable in the high range; the slightly opaque tuttis are not bothersome.

In the absence of any conspicuous coarseness or executant indiscretions, Slatkin's controlled, orderly Harold is superior to Gergiev's recent account (LSO Live), but it hardly captures the score's visceral excitement. Toscanini (RCA) certainly did so, in a vital performance that, even in monaural sound, fairly leaps through the speakers. If you insist, not unreasonably, on stereo, Mehta's lively reading is one of the Israel Philharmonic's best recordings, and more clearly and vividly recorded, in 1970s Decca analogue, than the present all-digital production.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

Previous review: Paul Corfield Godfrey



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