Sunday, June 27, 2010

Sunday Classics: Berlioz' "Byronic" hero Harold seems more Berlioz than Byron


The outstanding Russian violist Yuri Bashmet is the soloist, with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theater Symphony Orchestra, in most of the first movement of Harold in Italy, in a 2006 St. Petersburg New Year's performance. (The movement is completed here. With some fearsome intra-movement breaks, the piece is completed in two more clips.)

by Ken

Although we're rounding out our third week with Berlioz, I've been trying to stick close to the particular music we've been hearing, and so we haven't gotten to some basic points about his position in the musical cosmos. But since he defies ready classification in almost every other way, why should we surprised that his national identity too is blurry?

Oh, he's French all right, no doubt about that. He's as French as they come; it imbues his music in every possible way. And all things being equal, I would much prefer to hear not just French singers but French conductors and even orchestras perform his music. Unfortunately, those "things" are almost never anywhere near equal. The problem is that hardly any major musical country has been less attuned to Berlioz' music than his own. It doesn't help -- and this is one of those sweeping generalizations that is bound to cause offense, but that everyone knows is true, even (often especially) the French -- that the French tend to be, on the whole, so unmusical.

Because Berlioz as a composer "fit in" so badly, he would have been in trouble anywhere, but it surely didn't help that his own countrymen were in general so baffled by and indifferent to (more indifferent, I think, than hostile -- I don't think they took his music seriously enough to be actively hostile) his music. From the start, his music has been not just better liked but better understood abroad, not least in the German-speaking countries.

Here's a performance of the opening movement of the symphony with viola solo Harold in Italy -- which we began previewing Friday night -- by the Berlin Philharmonic under the dynamic Russian conductor Igor Markevitch:

BERLIOZ: Harold in Italy, Op. 16:
i. Harold in the mountains; scenes of melancholy, of happiness, and of joy

Heinz Kirchner, viola; Berlin Philharmonic, Igor Markevitch, cond. DG, recorded 1956

And here's another "foreign" performance -- American orchestra, Hungarian-born conductor. Of course it matters that the orchestra is the lustrous Philadelphia and the conductor the perennially undervalued Eugene Ormandy.

Harold in Italy:
i. Harold in the mountains; scenes of melancholy, of happiness, and of joy

Joseph de Pasquale, viola; Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy, cond. Columbia/CBS/Sony, recorded Jan. 21, 1965

Of course Berlioz' standing outside his homeland has something to do with his own deeply cosmoplitan mindset. He was a literary omnivore, and as I tried to suggest in our consideration (in the main posts last week and the week before, and their assorted previews and flashbacks linked therein) of the "dramatic symphony" Roméo et Juliette and the opera Béatrice et Bénédict (adapted from Much Ado About Nothing), he showed in those musical realizations a depth of understanding that puts him on something like equal creative footing with Shakespeare, the only comparably successful musicalizations of Shakespeare being Verdi's (and his librettist Boito's) Otello and Falstaff.

Berlioz did enjoy some triumphs at home, perhaps most notably with the Symphonie fantastique (our subject in last night's preview). Nobody had heard anything like it, but for once it could be taken in by the musical public. One person it really excited was the great violinist (and himself a notable composer) Nicolò Paganini, who was persuaded by hearing it that Berlioz was the man to produce a glorious showpiece for viola and orchestra with which he could show off the splendid viola he had recently acquired. Berlioz was game, and hatched the idea of another literary-based symphony, this one taking off from Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, into which he would weave a crucial viola solo.

Berlioz composed the first movement and sent it to Paganini, and really the only question is why he was surprised by the response. About the last thing the great virtuoso was expecting was A carefully interwoven viola solo. He expected his virtuoso showpiece to keep the soloist, meaning him, front and center, and constantly occupied. That may have ended his involvement with the piece, but fortunately Harold had taken firm enough shape in Berlioz' imagination that he hardly noticed.

One crucial difference between the Symphonie fantastique and Harold in Italy is that Harold, for all its professed literary indebtedness, has no "program," whereas the program of the Fantastique was an almost obsessive preoccupation of the composer, as we noted in last night's preview. (On this subject,

Not only does Harold have no program, it's next to impossible to point to anything in it that's truly "derived" from Byron's lengthy (I'm tempted to say "interminable") poem, beyond the general idea of wandering through Europe. Yes, Harold does visit Italy, but none of Berlioz' movement headings, or indeed their subject matter, seems to relate to incidents in Byron. Nor is there anything notably "Byronic" about Berlioz' Harold. Anthony Bruno ventures in his foreword to the Eulenburg miniature score: "The idée fixe, identifying Harold and recurring throughout, seems more the dreamy observer than passionate rebel, more Berlioz than Byron."

I can't imagine a better illustration than the movement we heard in Friday night's preview.

Harold in Italy:
ii. March of the pilgrims singing their evening prayer

Laurent Verney, viola; Orchestra of the Opéra Bastille, Myung-Whun Chung, cond. DG, recorded June 1994

Nobuko Imai, viola; London Symphony Orchestra, Colin Davis, cond. Philips, recorded 1975

As Edward T. Cone points out in the essay on "The Symphony and the Program" which I referenced in last night's quick tour of the Symphonie fantastique (in the invaluable all-in-one resource for the piece, the encyclopedically informative Norton Critical Score he edited), it seems clear that some of the evolution of Berlioz' thinking about the program of the Fantastique had to do with the considerable success of his next major creative project, the programless symphony with viola obbligato Harold in Italy. Audiences seemed able to "get" it just from the music, with no more guidance than the (admittedly wonderful) suggestions provided by his movement headings.

Which brings us to the third and shortest movement of Harold, the "Serenade of an Abruzzi mountain man to his mistress." I often wonder whether conductors are noticing that very first word: serenade. It's certainly a mighty particular sort of serenade that Berlioz has imagined here, but it strikes me that in some fashion we ought to be able to hear our Abruzzi mountaineer reaching out musically to his sweetheart. The two performances I've picked seem, well, better on this count than many other performances.

Harold in Italy:
iii. Serenade of an Abruzzi mountain man to his mistress

Pinchas Zukerman, viola; Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, Charles Dutoit, cond. Decca, recorded June 1994

Donald McInnes, viola; Orchestre National de France, Leonard Bernstein, cond. EMI, recorded November 1976

Another point I don't think we've made explicitly in our three weeks' visit with Berlioz is his orchestral genius. His music itself may not have had much immediate influence, but his expanded imagining of the symphony orchestra had a lot to do with the way many Romantic composers used it. Which brings us finally to the finale of Harold.

Harold in Italy:
iv. Brigands' orgy; recollections of the preceding scenes

Gérard Caussé, viola; Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse, Michel Plasson, cond. EMI, recorded March 3-7, 1991

Yuri Bashmet, viola; Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Eliahu Inbal, cond. Denon, recorded March 24-25, 1988


Of course we want to hear the whole of Harold. So why don't we return to the three performances we sampled Friday night, all featuring William Primrose as soloist?

BERLIOZ: Harold in Italy, Op. 16:
i. Harold in the mountains; scenes of melancholy, happiness, and joy
ii. March of the pilgrims singing their evening prayer
iii. Serenade of the Abruzzi mountain man to his mistress
iv. Brigands' orgy; recollections of the preceding scenes

William Primrose, viola; NBC Symphony Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini, cond. Music & Arts, recorded live, Jan. 2, 1939

William Primrose, viola; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Thomas Beecham, cond. Columbia/CBS/Sony, recorded Nov. 13 and 15, 1951

William Primrose, viola; Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Munch, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded March 31, 1958


If by chance Berlioz' Roméo has affected you the way it does me, it has infected you, and while the recordings we've already heard are still there to listen to again, I was reminded that I also have these orchestral excerpts on CD, as one of the fillers for Sony's reissue of Leonard Bernstein's Paris recording of the Berlioz Requiem. So I thought I'd throw them in.

BERLIOZ: Roméo et Juliette (dramatic symphony), Op. 17: Orchestral excerpts

i. Roméo alone -- Melancholy -- Distant noises of music and dancing -- Grand festivities at the Capulets'

ii. Love scene -- Night -- The Capulets' garden

iii. Queen Mab Scherzo

New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. Columbia/CBS/Sony, recorded Oct. 26, 1959


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