Berlioz Harold in Italy; Les Nuits d’été
Tabea Zimmermann (viola), Stéphane Degout (baritone); Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth
Harmonia Mundi HMM 902634 68:35 mins
Berlioz was the archetypical Romantic creating effusive semi-autobiographical outpourings, so it is odd that Les Nuits d’été is rarely sung by a man. The poems are evidently from a man to his beloved, and the original cycle was for mezzo-soprano or tenor; but with its tangled history of orchestrations for different voice-types, Les Nuits d’été rapidly came to be seen as a vehicle for female voice. Stéphane Degout’s superb account makes clear this need not be so. His fresh baritone effortlessly conveys the joie de vivre of the opening ‘Villanelle’, yet his stillness in ‘Le Spectre de la Rose’ and outstanding control at the end of ‘Sur les lagunes’ are heartachingly beautiful. François-Xavier Roth’s period-instrument ensemble Les Siècles provides superb support for Degout, lifting rather than overpowering the voice, with grainy wind textures providing plenty of character in ‘L’Île inconnue’.
The orchestra is even more vivid when let loose on the adventures of Harold en Italie, bringing incisive rhythms, translucent textures and a fizzing energy, while Tabea Zimmermann holds nothing back as viola soloist. The sunny lines of Harold’s opening stroll in the mountains sing gloriously, the undulations accompanying the pilgrims’ song are distinctly ethereal, and there’s no lack of grit when the brigands arrive.