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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Harold en Italie, Op.16 [40:40]
Les Nuits d’été, Op.7, H.81B [29:38]
Tabea Zimmermann (viola)
Stéphane Degout (baritone)
Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth rec. 2018, Philharmonie de Paris; Alfortville, Maison de l’Orchestre national d’Île-de-France
French texts and English & German translations included.
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902634 [70:23]

In the booklet accompanying this new CD, François-Xavier Roth comments that “Berlioz has been a strong presence in the history of Les Siècles virtually since the orchestra was formed.” It’s mildly surprising, then, that this is only their second Berlioz disc – although a short piece was included on a mixed programme, recorded in 2017, in which Roth and the orchestra partnered the soprano, Sabine Devieilhe (review). Their previous Berlioz album was devoted to the Symphonie fantastique (Actes Sud ASM02). I’ve not heard that disc, released in 2010, but on the evidence of this, their latest release, that’s an omission which I must hasten to rectify.

Roth has an impressive hinterland as a Berlioz interpreter; as we learn from reading the booklet, he worked with two great Berlioz conductors early in his career. He had a spell as assistant to the doyen of Berlioz conductors, Sir Colin Davis and his first assignment in that role was to prepare performances of Les Troyens. I presume that was in connection with the December 2000 performances that are preserved on Sir Colin’s splendid LSO Live recording (LSO 0010). Later, he assisted Sir John Eliot Gardiner in preparing performances of the same opera at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. On that occasion Roth worked with the period instruments of Gardiner’s Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. I assume these will be the 2003 performances memorably preserved on DVD by Opus Arte (review). So, Roth’s credentials for approaching the two works on this present disc are strong.

Harold en Italie is a most unusual and original work – how often do we say that about Berlioz? Paganini, who commissioned it, expected a brilliant concerto in which he could display his new viola of which he was very proud. Instead, what Berlioz delivered was a score in which the viola plays a very prominent role, to be sure, but in which the soloist is often out of the limelight. Paganini indignantly rejected the score, though he later relented and sportingly paid Berlioz a handsome fee.

The present soloist is Tabea Zimmermann. I believe she has recorded it twice before, once with Sir Colin Davis (LSO 0040) and once with Christoph Eschenbach. I’ve not heard the latter version but the 2003 account with Davis is very fine. Both of those previous recordings were with orchestras using modern instruments. Here, as well as the artistry of Zimmermann we can relish the distinctive timbres and textures of the period instruments used by Les Siècles. The significance of the orchestral contribution is in evidence right from the start. In ‘Harold aux montagnes’ the orchestra’s timbres give extra spice to the dark and restless chromatic writing with which Berlioz illustrates the hero’s melancholy. Roth conducts this introduction with great empathy. When the music brightens from minor-key to major and the soloist enters, Zimmermann’s husky-toned introduction of the movement’s main theme is so eloquent and subtle. As the movement progresses, Zimmermann is by turns pensive, flamboyant and happy as she explores the various facets of Harold’s character as depicted by Berlioz. In the main allegro the orchestral playing is wonderfully incisive,

In the second movement, ‘Marche des pélerins’, the advancing and then receding march is managed very successfully – and the spare-textured end of the movement is magically achieved. One detail that particularly caught my ear is the passage beginning around 4:00 where the soloist plays sul ponticello. In this episode – another example of Berlioz’s astonishing ability to produce innovatory sonorities - Zimmermann achieves a remarkable timbre; her instrument sounds almost like a Jew’s harp. In her recording with Davis the effect is also brought off well but here she surpasses that achievement. The mountain serenade that is the third movement is particularly notable for the central allegretto section. Here. Here, there’s some terrific woodwind work to admire, led by the piquant cor anglais of Stéphane Morvan. Roth and his expert players impart a charming rustic feel to this movement.

Then we’re off to gate crash the ‘Orgie des brigands’. Not long before starting work on Harold Berlioz had heard Beethoven’s Ninth for the first time and had been bowled over. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, perhaps it’s no accident that he began the finale of Harold in the manner of Beethoven with a review of some of the thematic material heard in the preceding movements. That homage to Beethoven out of the way, the brigands’ party begins in earnest and what a wild party Roth and company depict! The playing is passionate and precise and, if you’re like me, it will have you on the edge of your seat; it’s all very exciting. Amid such a tumult one appreciates the opportunity to catch one’s breath when Berlioz decrees a sudden, if brief, halt to the orgy (9:20) for one last, plaintive reflection from the viola. The interruption is very effectively managed here before Roth and the brigands whirl the score to a thrilling conclusion.

This is a magnificent performance. Tabea Zimmermann is a superb and very characterful soloist while the virtuoso musicians of Les Siècles make one hear this highly original score with fresh ears. François-Xavier Roth’s idiomatic conducting seems flawless to me. This is a revelatory Harold.

And revelatory is the word I would apply also to the performance of Les Nuits d’été. I must admit that I approached the prospect of hearing the work sung by a baritone somewhat thoughtfully. I have heard recordings of these wonderful mélodies sung by a variety of voices – both Sir Colin Davis (1969, Philips) and Sir John Eliot Gardiner (1989, Erato) made recordings using a quartet of voices, and in their different ways both of those recordings cast fresh light on the set of songs. Otherwise, though, in my experience the cycle has been sung in its entirety by a female soloist. The first time I listened to Stéphane Degout, however, my preconceptions melted away. True, there were times when I missed the unique timbres of Dame Janet Baker (EMI, 1967 with Barbirolli), Susan Graham (Sony Classical, 1997 with John Nelson) or the great Régine Crespin, but Degout easily won me over. It helps, of course, that, like Crespin, he’s a Francophone; his enunciation of the text is completely idiomatic. More than that, however, the sheer sound of his voice – and the way that he uses it – suits these songs admirably. The voice is clearly and firmly produced throughout its compass – his top register is wonderful to hear – and the sound is ideally forward. Furthermore, most, if not all, of the poems are clearly written from a male perspective.

‘Villanelle’ is an auspicious opener. Degout’s firm, forward projection of his voice gives great pleasure, as does the sound of a Francophone pronouncing French vowels. The text is enunciated with complete clarity. Degout offers a fresh, open-eyed interpretation and receives super support from Les Siècles. I loved the veiled sound of the orchestra at the start of ‘Le Spectre de la rose’. Here, perhaps, I miss the way that a female singer of the class of Baker or Crespin can deliver this song but Degout offers ample compensations, not least through the seductive smoothness of his vocal line in the opening couple of stanzas. Throughout, he is wonderfully responsive to the text of the poem. This is a fabulous performance.

The dark mourning timbres produced by Les Siècles at the start of ‘Sur les lagunes’ – and maintained throughout – set the tone for a very special account of this song. Degout’s performance is grief-stricken, not least at the cries of ‘Ah! sans amour, s’en aller sur la mer!’ Grief-stricken he may be, but his singing is always expertly controlled. In ‘Absence’ he achieves a super line and he conveys a real sense of longing. In the refrain. ‘Reviens, reviens, ma bien aimée’, it’s impossible not to think of Baker or Crespin but Degout offers his own insights. That’s especially true the third and last time that the refrain is sung. On that occasion he achieves a breath-taking inwardness, imparting a very special character to the music. In this song the subtlety with which the orchestra plays is memorable.

I greatly admired Degout’s way with ‘Au Cimetière’. He puts the poem across with great understanding and Berlioz’s music fits him like a glove. The orchestral contribution is outstanding – yet again. After so much introversion and intensity we need the extrovert ardour and enthusiasm that Degout and Les Siècles bring to ‘L’Île inconnue’. Their joyful account of this last song brings this memorable performance Les Nuits d’été to a fine conclusion. My allegiance to the female interpreters I referenced earlier remains intact. Nor has my regard for the multi-voice performances led by Davis and Gardiner diminished. However, Stéphane Degout and François-Xavier Roth have set a new, different benchmark for Les Nuits d’été. I urge all Berlioz enthusiasts – and, indeed, all lovers of mélodies – to hear it. I’m confident you’ll find it as enjoyable and rewarding as I did.

It remains only to say a few words about the presentation of this release. The booklet includes a useful note by Bruno Messina as well as a short interview with the conductor and the texts of Les Nuits d’été. The contents of the booklet are in English, French and German. The recordings were made at concerts in two venues which, clearly, have very different acoustic properties. The acoustic in the Philharmonie de Paris, where Harold en Italie was recorded, is pretty reverberant. Without recording the performers too closely, the engineers have tamed the resonance well – it’s only really noticeable when a movement ends loudly. Les Nuits d’été is recorded more closely – though not oppressively so – and that, I think, is appropriate for the smaller forces involved. Stéphane Degout is placed in front of the orchestra so he can be heard clearly without dominating. Both recordings are successful.

As an ardent admirer of Berlioz, I hope that as we mark the 150th anniversary of his death this year there will be many more recordings of his music. I’m sure there’ll be some excellent recordings to come – and please may we have more from Roth and Les Siècles; perhaps Roméo et Juliette – however, recordings from other artistes will have to be pretty special to surpass the achievement of this terrific disc.

John Quinn

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