Which ensemble would be better suited to inaugurate the Berlioz year 2019 - the brilliant Frenchman died 150 years ago at the age of 66 - than Les Siècles, today the historically oriented French orchestra par excellence? Founded 16 years ago by the conductor François-Xavier Roth, the orchestra is proud of its complete collection of historical instruments, which allow it to reproduce compositions exactly in their original sound dress. This is also done by one or the other competing ensemble, but owe to the treasure of original instruments for all of its musicians not as consistently as by Les Siècles. Especially striking is the special sound of historical instruments in the orchestra the further the journey goes back to the past. But also, compositions of the nineteenth and even of the twentieth century profit from the orchestral sound through original instruments. A special case is Hector Berlioz, who specifically used the sound reservoir of the instruments of his time to create the unbelievable timbres that characterize his sometimes sheer-mad compositions. Les Siècles impressively demonstrated the enormous richness of timbres that an orchestra can achieve through the use of original instruments already in the case of Berlioz's compositions in the recording of the Fantastique Symphony of the Frenchman, published in 2012. The fundamentally slender Berlioz sound forms the basis for an orgy of timbres not heard before Berlioz, with almost iridescent effects, which even today after colored sound carpets woven by Rimski-Korsakov and Richard Straus are well known surprises and amazes when specialists such as Les Siècles are active based on proper historical instruments.
Harold en Italie, a program symphony with viola obligato, are performed by Les Siècles under François-Xavier Roth with the original instrument line-up for the first time on the Berlioz anniversary album. Originally conceived as a virtuoso concerto for Nicolo Paganini, the devil's violinist categorically rejected his participation in the premiere of Harold for lack of a virtuoso orientation of the tone picture. And indeed, the solo instrument does not play the "first violin" here. Rather, the viola plays the role of the commentator for Lord Byron's poem set in tones, which deals with the idyllic, partly wild landscape of Abruzzo and the danger travelers were exposed to there at the time, including a veritable, wildly composed attack by muggers in the best Berlioz style. This starkly composed part of Harald competes in its fierceness with the last movement of the Fantastique, while the ingeniously painted landscape painting comes closest to the idyllic third movement of the Fantastique. Tabea Zimmermann comments on the events in Harald with the rather cool distance of the historian mirroring with her viola the slender orchestral sound and and playing extremely elegant and, where necessary, with virtuoso impetus. Compared to the not that much competing recordings of Harald en Italie, the recording with Les Siècles, Tabea Zimmermann and François-Xavier Roth is interpretatively, technically and due to the seductively colorfast sound of the orchestra one, if not the best.
The dreamlike beautiful, soul-touching vocal cycle Les Nuits d'Été is usually performed with a soprano or a mezzo, but was originally not conceived in this way. Rather, the original provides for a baritone at least for some of the songs. Together with Les Siècles, Théophile Gautier takes on the vocal role on the current Berlioz album throughout. His is a brightly timbred baritone, which fits in perfectly with the bright sound of the orchestra, appearing to have been made for the role of soloist in Les Nuits d'Été.
All in all, this Berlioz album contains one of the finest ever recorded compositions of this French sound magician. There is no better way to open the Berlioz year 2019.
Stephane Degout, baritone
Tabea Zimmermann, viola
Francois-Xavier Roth, conductor