WORKS: Harold en Italie; Tristia
PERFORMER: Gérard Caussé (viola); Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/John Eliot Gardiner
CATALOGUE NO: 446 676-2 DDD
Harold in Italy is an intriguing hybrid: picturesque symphony mixed with viola concerto, causing problems of balance in the concert hall that, happily, are soluble on record. Among available versions, Gardiner’s splendid performance, so far as I know the first recorded on period instruments, challenges the fine Colin Davis version with Nobuko Imai. Moreover, Tristia is no makeweight but a masterly triptych of solemn pieces, too rarely heard. The delicate, early Méditation religieuse (1831) is fully worthy of its more mature companions based on Hamlet; La mort d’Ophélie is one of Berlioz’s loveliest pieces, although I have heard it more finely chiselled with fewer voices, and the Funeral March is simply one of the greatest things he ever did, here magnificently realised, gunfire and all.
Caussé’s viola is an appealing Harold, and a wealth of detail can be heard throughout the symphony’s texture, not least in the final orgy. Gardiner does not let this get out of hand, and he achieves a finely-measured accelerando in the difficult first movement. The second movement (Pilgrims’ March) is admirably controlled and benefits, like the Hamlet march, from a splendidly wide dynamic range, a necessity with Berlioz, integral to his musical conception. Altogether a delight. Julian Rushton