With Harold in Italy, Berlioz effected a quiet revolution in synthesising the abstract, generic forms of the Symphony and the Concerto, in the service of dramatising a work of literature (Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage) to create something like an extended tone poem. Harold – in the form of a viola – does not exactly take centre-stage, however, but rather stands to the side, dreamily observing a series of events which unfold during his travels around Italy.
Lawrence Power sustains the solo part with apt reserve, but by no means lacking any engagement with the music itself. His performance is consistently marked by a soulful legato as befits Harold’s long-breathed, lyrical signature theme (like the idée fixe of the Symphonie fantastique). In its first appearance it is magically withdrawn in its dialogue with the harp, whilst in the second movement the theme remains unruffled, despite the successive waves of the orchestra’s music around it. The following section is more haunting still as the woodwinds and strings pass a chorale-like passage between them as the viola spins a sequence of veiled arpeggiated chords, some sul ponticello.
Andrew Manze directs the Bergen Philharmonic in an account which could have more impulsive drama and drive – except, perhaps, the ostinato of the third movement, which becomes a little too insistent and nagging despite the low dynamic; and there is emphatic abandon at the climax of the first and first movements as necessary. But the sonorities are beautifully blended and exude a mellow wash of colour like the paintings of the Roman campagna by Berlioz’s fellow Frenchmen, Lorraine and Poussin, rather than a glaring blaze of fierce Mediterranean sun. And certainly Power and Manze are at-one in their vision of this work which makes it a more engaging traversal than one that goes in for a mere episodic, linear succession of dramatic moments, which the piece can quite easily become.
The programme is generously filled out with an attractive and imaginative selection of short items. The solo viola stands in for the human voice in Berlioz’s ‘Le captive’ (originally with piano accompaniment), and Jean-Paul-Égide Martini’s once-popular ‘Plaisir d’amour’. Power draws an aching ardour in the noble melody of the former and captivates in the final strophe by withdrawing into a yet-more intimate world. In the latter song, Power plays the melody with an elegance that avoids becoming precious. The link with Weber is made by the inclusion of Berlioz’s inventive scoring of Invitation to the Dance (Weber’s Opus 65, for piano). The livelier sections do not quite take off with the panache they deserve, though the quieter contrasts are undeniably graceful. Power is given the honours in the Andante und Rondo ungarese (better known in its version for bassoon, but originally composed by Weber for his viola-playing half-brother) which he acquits with earthy vigour, though he and the Bergen players are a little cautious at the opening.
Even so, these seventy minutes of unalloyed pleasure will appeal to far more than Berlioz aficionados alone.