On this new period instrument recording of "Les Nuits d'Été" and the symphony "Harold in Italy" by Hector Berlioz, from the award winning musical director Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble, the featured soloists are two of the leading exponents of their art in recent years, the mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and the viola player Antoine Tamestit. Marc Minkowski is one of the most important conductors to have emerged since the 1990s. Over the last two decades he has carved out a niche for himself in the lesser-known works of the French and Italian Baroque. He began his career as a bassoonist, becoming a baroque specialist during his tenure with such ensembles as Les Arts Florissants, the Clemencic Consort of Vienna, and La Chapelle Royale. After taking first prize at the first International Early Music Competition in Bruges (1984), Minkowski founded his own early instrument ensemble, Les Musiciens du Louvre, with which he has made the bulk of his recordings. Born in Sweden, Anne Sofie von Otter's studies began in Stockholm and continued with Vera Rozsa at London's Guildhall before she became a principal artist of the Basel Opera from where an international career, which has now spanned more than two decades, was launched. Equally active in opera, concert, recital and recording and noted as one of the most versatile artists of her generation Anne Sofie von Otter appears regularly on the world's major stages and boasts an unrivalled discography. Antoine Tamestit was a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist between 2004 and 2006. During this period he made several solo and concerto recordings for the radio with BBC orchestras throughout the UK, and recitals engagements, including his debut performance at London's Wigmore Hall in October 2005. In 2008 he won the prestigious Credit Suisse award. Personnel: Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), Antoine Tamestit (viola), Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble, Marc Minkowski (conductor)
Harold in Italy was commissioned from Berlioz by the virtuoso violinist Paganini, who wanted something to show off his fine new viola. Actually, that’s not quite true; Paganini thought he was paying for a flashy concerto, but what he got was a symphonic poem. The viola plays the part of Byron’s Childe Harold, while Berlioz relives his own happy memories of travelling the wilds of Italy, meeting the locals in the mountains, encountering priests, brigands, and travelling musicians. Paganini was disappointed, and never played it… and despite an enthusiasm for most Berlioz, I’ve tended to agree with Paganini, and never quite hit it off with Harold. Until now.
Why the change of heart? Well, let’s look at the forces: Mark Minkowski’s ensemble Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble on period instruments, and for a band that began with the baroque, this is serious mission-creep, and their approach changes things in all kinds of subtle ways. Antoine Tamestit is the viola soloist, and from his gentle, folk-like first entry, and the breathless hush with which it’s echoed, there’s genuine intimacy, and the most delicate accompaniment. The plangent melancholy of the solo viola’s upper reaches contrasts beautifully with its woody depths; there’s the piquant edge of the winds, the purposeful gleam of brass; darker colours and lighter textures than a modern orchestra, and a subtle rebalancing of dynamics – so much seems like chamber music. Minkowski finds a lightning-fast response to Berlioz’s sudden outbursts, easily flowing tempos, and scurrying strings and razor-sharp attack in the Brigands’ Orgy – and everything worked out with Paganini, who was dazzled by the score when he finally heard it.
The same sense of seductive intimacy pervades Berlioz’s song cycle Summer Nights, and while mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter may not have quite the purity of tone which graced her previous recording, she seems to emerge from inside these songs, and the deliciously moulded accompaniments support her with grace and rare sensitivity. The transparency and detail are a tribute to the recording as well as the playing, the booklet is luxuriously appointed with evocative landscapes, and there’s a nice bonus: Otter and Tamestit together at the end for Marguerite’s song of the King of Thule from Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust. I’ll be damned: at last an account of Berlioz’s Harold I want to keep.
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