Berlioz: Harold en Italie - Ehnes, Davis
Classical - Orchestral
Berlioz: Harold en Italie; Reverie et Caprice; Rob Roy - Overture
James Ehnes, viola & violin
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis
The nine-time Juno-winning Canadian James Ehnes is centre stage in a new recording of orchestral works by Berlioz, with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. This recording was made following an extraordinary concert in November 2014 with the same forces, in which James Ehnes played two instruments made by Stradivarius, respectively a viola in the solo part of Harold en Italie – ‘symphony with a principal viola part’, in Berlioz’s words – and a violin in the solo of Rêverie et Caprice, both of which works feature here.
Berlioz was never ashamed to recycle his music from one work to another, especially when the earlier work had been rejected by the public or by the composer himself. In 1834, Paganini asked Berlioz for a work in which he could display his prowess on a fine Stradivarius viola. Berlioz then composed the four-movement symphony Harold en Italie, incorporating passages from the Rob-Roy overture which he had recently rejected.
Similarly, Rêverie et Caprice was the form eventually given to an aria from the opera Benvenuto Cellini, unceremoniously booed in Paris in 1838. Berlioz transformed the aria into a piece with solo violin three years later. It is the only piece Berlioz ever wrote for solo violin.
Review by Graham Williams - May 12, 2015
Sir Andrew Davies follows up the fine disc of Berlioz Overtures that he recorded with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra Berlioz: Overtures - Davis with another enticing programme from this composer's oeuvre – this time with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra with whom he currently holds the post of Chief Conductor.
The programme opens arrestingly with the second of Berlioz's overtures inspired by the novels of Sir Walter Scott – the splendidly titled 'Intrata di Rob-Roy MacGregor'. In the wake of a badly received performance of it in 1833, the sensitive Berlioz destroyed the score. Fortunately another copy survived and hearing it performed with such brio as on this disc one can hardly agree with the composer's view that it was 'long and diffuse'. Berlioz could have not considered the music all that bad as he re-used a couple of the themes in the main work on this disc – 'Harold en Italie'. The Melbourne horns begin the overture in rousing style and Davis's vital conducting makes one regret that this item, which provides a splendid addendum to the earlier release, is not heard more often.
The short 'Rêverie et Caprice' that follows is the only work for solo violin that Berlioz wrote. It was fashioned from unused material taken from his opera 'Benvenuto Cellini' – a failure on its first performances at the Paris Opera in 1838 – and its popularity resulted in several 19th century virtuosi violinists including David, Joachim and Wieniawski adding it to their repertoire. The sweetness and poise of James Ehnes's cultured playing and Davis's alert accompaniment are quite ravishing in this engaging piece.
James Ehnes is also the impeccable viola soloist in Berlioz's Byron inspired 'Harold en Italie'. Its subtitle 'Symphony in Four Parts with a Viola Solo' makes it quite clear that this piece is not a viola concerto, though many recordings treat it as such, but here Ehnes's mellow sounding Stradivarius is ideally balanced with the orchestra. Through the fluency of his playing and his imaginative interpretation he perfectly conveys the viola's role as the melancholy dreamer that the composer intended whilst the rapport between James Ehnes an Andrew Davis is clear throughout. Davis's swift but flowing tempi for each of the four sections reflect his complete grasp of the composer's idiom. The attack of the Melbourne S O in the 'Orgie de brigands' conveys plenty of high voltage excitement, while the work's more pastoral sections are delivered with winning grace and style. Even in a crowded field this superbly recorded version from Ehnes and Davis will, for many, be a clear first choice.
The sound quality (24-bit / 96kHz) provided for all three works is crisply focussed and immediate, thanks to the warm but bright acoustic of the recording venue (Hamer Hall, Arts Centre, Melbourne) and the efforts of the Chandos engineering team.
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