Berlioz: Harold in Italy; Les Nuits d’Été

Reviewed on Tue 04 Jun, 2019

François-Xavier Roth breaks convention by choosing a baritone, Stéphane Degout, who through timbre of voice and range of expression offers new perspectives.

“All in all, Harold is a disappointing work in so far as the stern philosophy of its opening is not maintained” (J H Elliot in The Master Musicians edition 1967). Yet this “series of orchestral scenes” (Berlioz) has attracted a number of notable recordings, starting with the first from William Primrose/Serge Koussevitsky in 1944, then, as examples, Carlton Cooley/Arturo Toscanini, Frederick Riddle/Hermann Scherchen, Yehudi Menuhin/Colin Davis, Tabea Zimmerman/Colin Davis plus Primrose’s other collaborations with Thomas Beecham and Charles Munch. Gérard Caussé/John Eliot Gardiner using instruments of the period were similarly followed by Antoine Tamestit/Marc Minkowski, with the trend here augmented by Zimmerman/François-Xavier Roth offering another dimension to the music. Darker instrumental colours and rawer timbres in the first movement set the scene. Enter the harp followed by the solo viola – from 3:05 – more forward than usual as specified in the score; and the repeat of the eight-bar viola theme now placed within a backdrop of harp and two clarinets all parts marked ‘ppp (as softly as possible-scarcely audible)’ poses problems of instrumental balance and colouring that Roth handles with consummate skill, just as he does the subsequent dynamic changes of varying levels until the Allegro at 7:14. It is but one example of deeply probing conducting that carries the work aloft to its orgiastic finale – Allegro frenetico – and exhilarating close. Quite different are the requirements for a collection of six songs originally for mezzo-soprano (or tenor) with piano and published under the title Les Nuits d’Été. Orchestration – for small forces – came later, and Roth breaks convention by choosing a baritone, Stéphane Degout, who through timbre of voice and range of expression offers new perspectives. Perhaps the most striking example is Sur les lagunes, a sailor’s lament in F minor for the death of a woman he loved; and Degout’s interpretation is an engulfing recreation of anguish and hopelessness, of agony with no end that the composer intensifies by ending the music on the dominant. Extend your experience of “one of Berlioz’s works to treasure most” (Hugh Macdonald) by including mezzo-soprano Régine Crespin’s Decca recording with Ernest Ansermet, a conductor as acutely conscious of orchestral content and message as Roth.
–Nalen Anthoni