Harold in Italy (Berlioz)


Tabea Zimmermann (viola)
Ballet Music from The Trojans
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis (conductor)

LSO0040
TPT: 52:18

reviewed by Neville Cohn

The viola, that treacherous, ungainly instrument, guards its secrets jealously. Tabea Zimmermann, though, is privy to them all. In her hands, the viola, so intractable for many trying to master it, is, in the best sense, tamed; it does her bidding to often wondrous effect – and with intonation so consistent that it is an object lesson in how to play this awkward instrument precisely in tune.

Harold in Italy, a masterpiece by any standard, is one of the great tests for the violist and Zimmermann is very much to the fore, providing the most satisfying account of the work I have heard since experiencing the artistry of Nabuko Imai a good many years ago.

I  can hardly imagine a more inspiring backing for the soloist than that provided by the LSO under the direction of Davis who is steeped in the Berlioz tradition and brings decades of commitment to this reading.

This is no product of the recording studio with skilled editors to splice out lapses to provide an artificial perfection. No. This is yet another recording in the LSO Live series – and wonderfully immediate it is, too. I cannot imagine anyone failing to fall under the spell of a performance that would surely convert even the most curmudgeonly listener.

Throughout, Davis secures responses of the utmost intensity in ways that reach out to the listener. Here one wonders, as ever, at the epic scale of the ideas enshrined in Harold in Italy; it is Berlioz at his most magically original.

In the opening measures of the work, lower strings and bassoons produce dark, low-register tone that sets the mood perfectly for the first utterance of the solo viola; there is about the latter a rawness of emotion that rivets the ear in some of the most startlingly communicative playing imaginable. Certainly, the solo viola line has a pulsing, almost human quality that irresistibly evokes images of this Byronic creation.

Harold en Italie

Harold en Italie

 

As Zimmermann works her way through the score, she sounds so perfectly attuned to the requirements of the music that in her hands, the viola seems less a construction of wood, gut and varnish than an extension of her musical persona. It is an extraordinary feat of musicianship.

The playing of the LSO is a compendium of musical marvels. In ensemble with Zimmermann, the presentation of the first movement is a near-perfect assessment of the romantic melancholy of the writing. And the woodwind choir is marvellously effective in the third movement, producing playing that ranges from moments of tenderness to episodes that come across as the quintessence of the dance. Laurels to the cor anglais player. Woodwinds, as a choir, are much to the fore, too, in the finale; their virtuosity is breathtaking.

There is more splendour in the filler: ballet music from The Trojans. Phrasing is beyond reproach in Pas des Alemees – and bracing rhythmic figurations in Danse des Esclaves make for frankly thrilling listening.

This recording was made before an audience at the Barbican, London.

Highly recommended.

Copyright Neville Cohn 2004

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *