In 1831, after winning the Prix de Rome, Hector Berlioz spent some time in Rome and Italy. He did not much like the city but toured a lot in the Italian countyside, which left a lasting impression on him. Later he would use his Italian memories to shape his concertante symphony for viola and orchestra. Another influence was Lord Byron's poem Childe Harold; the melancholy wanderings of the protagonist are supposed to be reflected in the tone of the viola heard throughout the symphony. So the symphony got its name, "Harold en Italie".
The symphony was originally composed on a request from Niccolo Paganini, the famous violin virtuoso, who wanted a large-scale work where he could play the viola part. Nevertheless, Paganini refused to perform the completed work, claiming that it was not virtuosic enough; however, he liked the work so much that he paid Berlioz a considerable sum as a compensation.
The current disc is a superb version of this symphony, performed in a warm sound by Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble led by Marc Minkowski and recorded in the generous acoustics of the Opera Royal de Versailles. Those familiar with Minkowski's rendition of the Symphonie Fantastique of a few years back will recognize the same meticulous attention to detail and leisurely tempos. Yet Minkowski keeps it all admirably under control, and while the Symphonie Fantastique may have sounded too heavy-going to some listeners, there is hardly any problem with the tempos used here, or with the sound quality. Although the first movement, Harold in the mountains, lasts more than two minutes longer than in the classic version by Munch and the Boston SO, the playing is very beautiful and committed throughout and the ending is every bit as incisive as in Munch's version.
Indeed, Minkowski does a splendid job in opening up Berlioz's sound-world. Some of the nuances and tone colors heard on this CD are such that I don't remember hearing any comparable sounds in any other recording of a symphony, and listening to it made me realize again what a brilliant orchestrator Berlioz was.
The orchestra used on this CD has a lot to do with its original sound-world. Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble is an orchestra that uses period instruments and observes HIP, or historically-informed, performance practices. So here we have a version that might represent a close approximation of what listeners heard in Berlioz's time. The orchestral line-up even includes an ophicleide, a wind (brass) instrument which was invented and widely used in Berlioz's time but is no more featured in modern orchestras.
The same could be said of the song-cycle Les nuits d'été, of which Anne-Sofie von Otter gives a heart-felt performance with her impeccable French diction. Minkowski's conducting subtly highlights the orchestral detail, and I found it amazing how well von Otter's voice blends with the orhcestral colors. But perhaps this should come as no surprise, as von Otter, Minkowski and his orchestra have already collaborated on a variety of recordings.
The programme ends with the song Le roi de Thulé from Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust, re-introducing the viola on the background and thus giving the CD an appropriate sense of a closure.
The booklet includes essays on the works themselves, an excerpt from Berlioz's Memoirs dealing with his relationship with Paganini in the context of HEI, as well as English and German translations of the original French lyrics. There are also many fine illustrations, both photographs and paintings, of Italian landscapes. However, the page numbers associated with the images and their explanations do not match, so that you have to do some detective work to connect text and image. But this is only a minor point, so whether you know this symphony well or are a newcomer to it, you could do well to investigate this splendid release.