Berlioz: Harold en Italie; Ballet music from Les troyens

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WORKS: Harold en Italie; Ballet music from Les troyens
PERFORMER: Tabea Zimmermann (viola); LSO/Colin Davis
This new performance of Berlioz’s homage to Byron – and recollection of an enjoyably restorative sojourn south of the Alps – vies for benchmark status with two Philips recordings: Colin Davis’s own 1975 version with Nobuko Imai and John Eliot Gardiner’s 1994 account with Gérard Caussé. All three take the music seriously while making it vivid, so that determining a clear choice between them is difficult. At least the three viola soloists make distinct impressions. Imai is the most straightforward of the three, consistently offering reliably rounded tone and unexceptionable phrasing, while Zimmermann is far more spontaneous and untamed, with Caussé generally occupying a middle ground. For example, where Imai sees the sul ponticello instruction for the arpeggiated figures in the ‘Marche des pèlerins’ as an invitation to play lightly, Zimmermann exaggerates the glassy sound, while Caussé satisfyingly synthesises these approaches.


The LSO’s playing on Davis’s new recording is (occasional live-performance roughness aside) at least as refined as on the older one, but three decades ago the accents in the opening theme of the Serenade were more convincingly rendered. On balance, Gardiner’s intensity, care with timbres, and rhythmic integrity better realise Berlioz’s audacious inventiveness, but I wish he had injected more of Davis’s drama into the dialogues between winds and strings in the ‘Orgie de brigands’. Spirited renditions of ballet music from Les troyens, excerpted from Davis’s recent complete recording of the opera, round out the new disc. David Breckbill