Tomorrow Chandos will release the latest recording featuring James Ehnes, still available for pre-order from Amazon.com. Best known as a violinist, Ehnes devotes less than ten minutes on this CD to violin work. The CD consists entirely of music by Hector Berlioz; and the major portion is devoted to his Opus 16 “Harold en Italie” (Harold in Italy), composed in 1834. This piece is classified as a symphony by Wikipedia, and it has enough solo viola work to be recognized as a concerto. However, at the end of the day, like the Opus 14 “Symphonie fantastique,” composed in 1830, it is basically a tone poem extended over four movements. For those interested in such things, both the violin and the viola used for this recording were made by Stradivarius. The accompanying ensemble is the Melbourne Symphony conducted by Andrew Davis.
Berlioz called the short piece for violin Romance (Opus 8). It is in two movements entitled “Rêverie” and “Caprice,” composed, respectively in 1841 and 1842. It serves somewhat as a warm-up, acclimating the listener to Berlioz’ approach to the relationship between a soloist and an ensemble, a relationship that tends to suggest that of a vocal soloist singing art song, rather than opera. In spite of the opus numbering, it was completed about eight years after Opus 16. Davis also provides the recording with an overture, the one Berlioz composed in 1831, named “Rob Roy” after the novel by Walter Scott.
Perhaps as a result of his infatuation with the Irish Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson, Berlioz developed a great enthusiasm for literature in the English language. Thus, the “Harold” of Opus 16 is the protagonist of Lord Byron’s narrative poem in four cantos, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. This poem is now recognized as providing the first instance of a “Byronic” hero; and, if one tries to read the narrative of Opus 16 as even partly autobiographical, one can assume that Berlioz saw a potential role model in Byron’s protagonist.
However, while “Symphonie fantastique” was rather explicitly structured around a narrative about an obsession that comes to a bad end (a really bad end), Opus 16 is not fundamentally narrative in nature. Certainly, the four movements of this symphony do not directly track Byron’s four cantos. Rather, each movement basically develops a different aspect of Harold’s travels; and Harold has his own theme that captures his persona observing and reacting to each of these aspects. As one might expect from Berlioz, this all takes place in an environment rich with instrumental diversity; but the composer also developed a keen sense of how to exploit the viola as a solo instrument (perhaps reflecting Berlioz’ affection for the mezzo vocal range).
As a soloist Ehnes is particularly skillful in his capacity as a “switch-hitter.” If one did not know his background as a concert and recital soloist, one might assume that the viola was his primary vehicle. He clearly enjoys putting his instrument through its paces by way of the part that Berlioz provided, and his chemistry with conductor Davis can never be faulted. Indeed, his viola work is so impressive that his violin solo work runs the risk of being dismissed as a bit too slight; but that risk has more do to with what Berlioz provided than with how Ehnes chose to play it.
The real kicker on the album comes with the decision to begin with the “Rob Roy” overture. It turns out that Harold’s theme had its origins in the lyric theme that Berlioz interleaved with more explicitly Scottish music in that overture. This makes for an amusing inversion, since Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage predates Scott’s novel; and, while it does so by only a few years, there are those who believe that Byron may have been one of Scott’s key influences. Most likely, such details would have meant little to Berlioz. The fact is that Harold’s theme is not particularly Byronic and that those Byronic qualities appear more in the orchestral depictions of the episodes that Harold experiences, the violent brigands of the final movement providing the most salient example.
Thus, whatever passions Berlioz may have had for literature in the English language (or those who made it their task to dramatize that literature), what matters most is the consistency of Berlioz’ own language. Ultimately, this is his version of the story; and it owes little, if any, allegiance to Byron. In other words, we should go on listening to this music as we have always done, as an “all-Berlioz” experience; and both Ehnes and Davis have done an excellent job of making that experience a thoroughly engaging one.