On record – Tabea Zimmermann, Stéphane Degout, Les Siècles / François-Xavier Roth: Berlioz: Harold en Italie & Les Nuits d’été

Berlioz
Harold en Italie (1834)
Les Nuits d’été (1840-1841, orch. 1843 & 1856)

Tabea Zimmermann (viola), Stéphane Degout (baritone), Les Siècles / François-Xavier Roth

Harmonia Mundi HMM 902634 [70’28”]

Recorded 2-3 March 2018 at Philharmonie de Paris

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Released earlier this year, this disc from Les Siècles and François-Xavier Roth marks the 150th anniversary of the death of composer Hector Berlioz by looking at two of the composer’s biggest innovations. The ensemble use instruments of the period to create a sound similar to that which the composer might have heard.

What’s the music like?

Described as a ‘symphony in four parts with viola obbligato’, Harold In Italie is one of the first obvious ‘tone poems’. In it Berlioz uses the viola soloist to represent a traveller, but one who travels with others – in this case the orchestra, for the instrument operates alongside rather than in front of them. Harold is tuneful and fun, a spirited affair full of incident, enjoying the companionship between orchestra and solo viola, played here by Tabea Zimmermann.

Alongside it is one of the very first song cycles with orchestra, Les Nuits d’été. This collection sets five poems by Berlioz’s close friend Théophile Gautier, and was originally intended for more than one voice. Now they are more commonly heard with a mezzo-soprano soloist, but on this occasion Les Siècles are joined by baritone soloist, Stéphane Degout who sings the composer’s own adaptation.

Does it all work?

Yes. Despite quite a reverberant recording, Harold In Italie benefits from the brilliant playing and lean orchestral sound of Les Siècles, whose sharp edges are a real asset in dramatizing this work. The violin tremolos are sharp, the wind and brass sounds clear but with an appealing grit to them.

Zimmermann gets the balance just right, her virtuosity beyond reproach but her phrasing totally in keeping with the orchestra. Her first thoughts, just over three minutes in to the first movement (Harold aux montagnes), are the theme that will dominate the piece, and are ideally weighted against the harp, responding really well as the music becomes more energetic. As the travelling picks up speed, Les Siècles and Roth sound terrific in full flow.

When Zimmermann accompanies the Marche de pèlerins chantant la prière du soir (March of the Pilgrims) there is a too and fro between the jovial theme and the horns’ distant chime, which sounds like a warning. Zimmermann’s spidery string crossing half way through is particularly good, before the music disappears evocatively into the distance at the end.

The third movement Sérénade has an airy start before slowing for a theme initially heard on mellow cor anglais. The thrumming of the harp half way through lulls the listener into a lovely reverie, after which the sudden loud note to start the finale, Orgie de brigands, will make you jump! Roth’s relatively broad approach is capped here with music that really blooms under his direction, and as the finale veers out of control, Harold under the influence in a tavern, the swaggering discords are brilliantly achieved by Roth before the story rights itself, the sense of homecoming heightened.

Les nuits d’été (Summer nights) is enjoyable albeit with a slightly cooler temperature. The ear adjusts easily to the less common male protagonist, which in several songs means the music is sung lower than in the mezzo-soprano versions.

Stéphane Degout has an attractively rich, slightly nasal tone and a very clear diction, bringing a relatively carefree approach to Villanelle, with intimate strings. The voice really comes into its own in a warm account of Le Spectre de la rose, with shadowy figurations from the strings. Their lean tone adds an edge to the beginning of Sur les Lagunes, whose sombre beginning leads to a passionate outburst from the soloist. Absence and Au cimetière, Clair de lune are richly atmospheric, while the final L’Île inconnue is a cheery and optimistic affair.

The tempi are on the nippy side – second song Le Spectre de la rose, for instance, is more than a minute quicker than Dame Janet Baker’s celebrated account – but the phrasing still feels natural.

Is it recommended?

It is. Roth and his charges always bring a fresh approach to the music they play, and in Zimmermann and Degout they have two soloists ideally suited to the task. Zimmermann leads Harold en Italie with style and panache, while Degout’s rounded tones offer a new shade for Berlioz’s song cycle.

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For more information on this release and to purchase in multiple file formats visit the Presto website