Saturday, 12 January 2019

Off on adventures ! François-Xavier Roth, Les Siècles, all Berlioz livestream Paris

Livestreamed from the Philharmonie de Paris, François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles in an all-Berlioz programme featuring Berlioz Harold en Italie, with Overtures from Benvenuto Cellini, from  Le Carnaval Romain op 9, and Béatrice et Bénédict and the sections "Roméo seul" and "Grande fête chez Capulet" from Roméo et Juliette op 17

A Romantic Harold en Italie op 16 H68 1834 in the true sense of the term "Romantic". Roth and Les Siècles capture the aesthetic of the early 19th century when wild dreams, adventure and concepts of freedom and individuality transformed European culture.  The modern use of the term "romantic" is a dumbing-down of the Romantic vision : we need to re-engage with what Romanticism was to appreciate Berlioz and other composers of his time. That is what "historically informed performance" really is : not instruments per se but performance practice that grows from an understanding of a composer and his influences.  In the case of Berlioz, this is particularly important since Berlioz was fascinated by new instrumental colours. His Grand Traité d’Instrumentation et d’Orchestration Modernes - note the word "modernes" was published at around the same time as Harold en Italie was written, so Les Siècles use instruments from the time in which Berlioz was working.  The result is brighter, cleaner, less "polluted":  Byron and his hero Harold travelling in landscapes still unexplored and unknown.  Roth, his orchestra and Tabea Zimmermann the soloist, make Harold en Italie feel fresh and new, as it might have when it was new.

"Berlioz", Roth has said, "like other innovative orchestrators, brought out the best qualities of the instruments he had at his disposal at the time. He kept up with the latest developments in instrument making and, like a chef, was keen to use the right ingredient to season his musical recipe. It’s really exciting to encounter the original flavours of the instruments of his time because you realise almost instantly what these new combinations of timbres were........"With Harold en Italie, things are much more complex: the viola is not a concertante soloist, as it would be in a Romantic concerto, but rather a musical character, a narrator, an actor in the story of Harold that is related to us. Berlioz

invented a genuinely new role here in the relationship between the soloist and the orchestra."

In the Romantic aesthetic, heroes are loners in a vast landscape, accentuating the monumental challenges before them. Berlioz's first

movement is titled "Harold aux montagnes". Ominous figures loom up in the orchestra, ascendant lines stretching outwards. When Zimmermann enters, her line is quietly confident, garlanded by harp and winds. Just as the hero engages with the panorama, the viola engages with the orchestra : a good balance here, the soloist not overwhelmed by larger forces. The movement ends with a sense of adventure. In the "Marche des pèlerins", the understated melodic line in the orchestra suggests the humility of pilgrims, singing as they journey. Thus the arppegiated chords, the viola beside the orchestra.

In the third movement, the use of period instruments brings out the distinctive timbres and rhythms of folk music in the serenade and

saltarello. The dances become drama in the "Orgie des Brigandes". Brigands, like gypsies in 19th century folklore, represent "natural"

forces, freedom versus inhibition, danger versus comfort. Thus the quicksilver energy with which Les Siècles brings this movement to life :

even the quieter figure before the entry of the viola bristles with anticipation.

Roth and Les Siècles have recorded Berlioz Harold en Italie with Tabea Zimmermann, recently released by Harmonia Mundi  coupled with an equally individual  Les Nuits d'été op 7 with baritone Stéphane Degout. (Please read more here).

At the Philharmonie de Paris live, to highlight the sense of"things to come" Roth and Les Siècles presented Harold en Italie with a group of Overtures from Benveuto Cellini, from  Le Carnaval Romain op 9, and Béatrice et Bénédict . Curtain raiser after curtain raiser!  Then "Roméo seul" and "Grande fête chez Capulet" from Roméo et Juliette op 17.All performed with Roth's characteristic zest.  A programme that made me think about Berlioz as innovator and man of the theatre in every sense. Music can be thrilling as drama even when it's not attached to an opera or larger work. As an encore,  Roth and Les Siècles concluded with the Hungarian March from Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust op 24, for which Zimmerman sat in with the orchestra’s violists. Catch the livestream on the Philharmonie de Paris website until June 2019.

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