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

Wigmore Mondays – Adam Walker, Tabea Zimmermann & Agnès Clément: Music for flute, viola and harp by Bax, Debussy & Gubaidulina

Adam Walker (flute, above), Tabea Zimmermann (viola) & Agnès Clément (harp) (both below)

Bax Elegiac Trio (1916) (1:40 – 11:15 on the broadcast link below)
Debussy Syrinx (1913) (12:47-14:28; Sonata for flute, viola and harp (1915) (17:34 – 35:44)
Stravinsky Elégie for viola (1944) (37:21-43:24)
Gubaidulina Garten Von Freuden Und Traurigkeiten (Garden of Joy and Sorrow) (1980) (45:38-1:02:34)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 15 April 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Photo credits: Adam Walker (c) Marco Borggreve, Agnès Clément (c) Tysje Severens

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

The combination of flute, viola and harp is relatively unusual but has inspired some extremely forward-looking music since the second decade of the 20th century. Within two years of each other Bax and Debussy wrote independently for the combination, responding very differently to the potential of new and open textures.

Sir Arnold Bax was in fact the first to publish, and his Elegiac Trio immediately casts its spell through the rippling adagios of Agnès Clément’s harp (from 1:40 on the broadcast). Above this the flute of Adam Walker and viola of Tabea Zimmermann exchange airy thoughts, introspective but also free of constraint. The watery sound is beautiful and weightless, but Bax’s thoughts become more substantial. The music comes to rest in the major key, having started in the minor, with the feeling of troubles put to rest.

Of all the pieces written for solo flute, Debussy‘s Syrinx (12:47) is both the most magical and the most innovative. And yet when you listen to it there is no effort at all required, the languid lines instinctive but leading to an impressive climax. Adam Walker plays superbly here, ending in the lower register lost in thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp (from 17:34) is also a piece deserving of its description as magical, and is regarded as one of the signposts to modern 20th century music for its innovations in sound, harmony and melody. It is ideal when heard after Syrinx, as the flute begins – then the viola. As the programme booklet writer Paul Griffiths vividly observes, this first movement, marked Pastorale, takes time to pause in reflection, while demonstrating Paul Klee’s idea of ‘taking a line for a walk’. It’s elusive yet captivating.

The second movement Interlude (24:50) is graceful and a little dance like. Again the textures are beautifully open, helped by the tone quality of the three soloists, who bring to Debussy’s music that wonderful hazy warmth we associate with the composer at times. Then from 27:38 we hear a joyous tune from flute and viola together, over flowing harp, before the movement subsides to a soft end.

The Finale (31:08) is often singled out for its striking sonorities. The harp tremolo gives a rich backing for the very separate thoughts of flute and harp, one enchanting and the other relatively scratchy with the bow towards the bridge. At all times Debussy is keenly aware of the colours he wants to portray and the three players here respond superbly, bringing their close attention to sonic detail with a convincing unison.

Tabea Zimmermann then goes alone for the understated but striking Elégie of Stravinsky – striking because it is scored for solo, muted viola and sounds as though it has been imported from another civilization. It is also in two parts, so the initial idea (37:21) gives way to an austere dialogue between different ‘voices’ on the same instrument. The end recaps the mournful opening before dying away.

A world very far from the Wigmore Hall is also the destination for the unusual colours (for classical audiences at least) conjured up by Sofia Gubaidulina. East frequently meets West in her compositions, and in Garten Von Freuden Und Traurigkeiten (Garden of Joy and Sorrow) the East is most obviously present in the harp, plucking its responses to the flute’s decorations with slides of pitch. It is eerie but also compelling.

Then from around 50:15 the viola explores its harmonics – the fingers resting very lightly on the string to get a glassy sound that appears to be far-off, but which Gubaidulina uses cleverly. The flute is still the most prominent instrument, but increasingly the viola’s ‘voices of the night’ and the harp’s insistent plucking make themselves known. The music gets more animated, taking the harp right down to its lowest range – from where the flute starts a solo ‘cadenza’ (54:00)

The garden then seems to fall under its own spell, with night noises from all three instruments, until the viola plays a powerful line rising to a height. After this the music of the opening returns, with the striking harp slides again in evidence, before fading to the middle distance.

A superb performance of this piece from three friends, for whom this was their first ever concert as a trio. That would explain the wonderful spontaneity on show, for you would never have known!

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert can be heard here, including a live recording of the Gubaidulina and a legendary recording of the Debussy from the Melos Ensemble:

If Gubaidulina is a new name to your ears, then the strongest possible recommendation can be made for this recording of her Offertorium for violin and orchestra from Gidon Kremer, coupled with the Hommage à T.S. Eliot – a cycle for soprano and an octet featuring today’s viola player Tabea Zimmermann:

For more chamber music featuring the harp, this lovely collection from the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble is a treat. It includes two works by Debussy, the beautiful Introduction and Allegro by Ravel and the delightful Serenade for flute, harp and string trio by this year’s centenary composer Roussel: