ALBUM TITLE: Berlioz
WORKS: Harold en Italie; Rêverie et Caprice; Rob Roy Overture
PERFORMER: James Ehnes (violin, viola); Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Davis
CATALOGUE NO: CHSA 5155 (hybrid CD/SACD)
Given Sir Andrew Davis’s run of excellent recordings, the imaginative programme, and the prospect of hearing James Ehnes on both violin and viola (both Stradivarii), this aroused keen expectations. I was therefore surprised to find myself rather less impressed on actual listening to this album.
The opening Rob Roy Overture, with its stirring theme derived from Scots wha’ hae, seemed slightly low-voltage, warmly expansive but lacking in Berliozian crispness. And Harold in Italy, which draws on music written for Rob Roy, left the same feeling, lyrical and atmospheric enough in the ‘March of the Pilgrims’ but somewhat short of contrasting demonic energy and rhythmic snap; the ‘Brigands’ Orgy’ is more boisterous than frenzied. Hearing it alongside other classic versions, notably Sir Colin Davis’s 2003 recording with the excellent Tabea Zimmerman (LSO Live), and Marc Minkowski’s earthy period-instrument interpretation with Antoine Tamestit (on Naïve), only strengthened this impression. Yet it’s well played and recorded with SACD clarity, and Ehnes himself doesn’t disappoint on either instrument.
In Rêverie et Caprice, originally an aria cut from Benvenuto Cellini, the violin becomes as eloquent as the voice, and in Harold the viola embodies the protagonist’s consuming melancholy with fluent intensity. But Harold isn’t a concerto, which is why Paganini rejected it; the viola solo rises out of the orchestral texture and is finally subsumed into it again, and, central as it is, can’t dominate or define a performance. So the burden of the success of a performance falls to the conductor and orchestra. Andrew Davis’s Berlioz is lushly Romantic but for me, at least, not impetuous or driven enough. Result: still quite a good performance, but less compelling than the best. Michael Scott Rohan