Berlioz: Harold en Italie

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Berlioz
LABELS: Hannsler
WORKS: Harold en Italie; La damnation de Faust – excerpts; Les Troyens – Royal Hunt and Storm
PERFORMER: Jean-Éric Soucy (viola); SWR Baden-Baden and Freiburg SO/Sylvain Camberling
CATALOGUE NO: 93.241

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That this is to be a dramatic, almost operatic performance of Berlioz’s post-Byronic symphony-concerto is clear from the outset. The opening fugato for the ‘Scenes of sadness’ is not so much pensive or melancholy in mood as downright tragic, with Sylvain Cambreling heavily stressing the Trojans-ish pre-echoes and ominous undercurrents in the build-up to his soloist’s grand, Cassandra-like entrance. 

Principal viola of the Baden-Baden and Freiburg radio orchestra, the Québecois violist Jean-Éric Soucy exhibits a stronger personality than some more famous Harolds on record. Though the co-founder of the Canadian period-style group Les Violons du Roy, he plays a modern (1998) viola by the German luthier Stefan Hodapp rather than a Strad of the kind Paganini commissioned the piece to show off: its rich, warm, resonant tones lend real presence to his playing of the sometimes over-reticent solo part, whether in the initial expansive outpouring of the idée fixe, the crepuscular sul ponticello arpeggios as our lone observer watches the pilgrims slowly recede into the twilit landscape, or the borrowed peasant garb of the Abruzzi Highlander’s serenade. 

Unfurling this panorama of vibrantly painted tableaux, Cambreling proves himself a born Berliozian, bringing to fresh life the composer’s characteristically bold colours, restless cross-rhythms and daring metrical layerings, before driving the Roman Carnival-esque Brigands’s Orgy to a truly Allegro frenetico finish.

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Of the fillers, though the Royal Hunt and Storm never quite achieves its full mythic climax without the opera’s yelping forest voices, the three Faust extracts are impressively despatched with appropriate swagger, gossamer delicacy and Mephistophelean wit. Mark Pappenheim