Harold in Italy – but Without His Orchestra!

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Weber, Berlioz, and Brahms:  Gérard Caussé (viola), Michel Dalberto (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 19.12.2012 (MB)

WeberAndante e Rondo ungarese, J.79, op.35
Brahms:  Viola Sonata in E-flat major, op.120 no.2
Berlioz-LisztHarold en Italie, S 472

Weber’s Andante e Rondo ungarese seems nowadays more often to be performed in its later bassoon version, but was originally written for viola and orchestra. I am afraid I had the same problem I have with most of Weber’s music written before the great trilogy of three ‘late’ operas: bewilderment that such trivial, anonymous music could have been written by the same man who composed Der Freischütz. In this case, the problem was compounded by use of what I assume must have been a piano reduction of the orchestral score; at any rate, no credit was given, either to Weber or to someone else. It put me in mind of accompanying for Associated Board exams – somehow, as a teenage schoolboy, I used to think that £10 was an acceptable rate, rehearsals included, but it certainly taught me to listen to other musicians – and especially so in some thumping chords that it is difficult to imagine anyone who actually played the piano having written as such. There was, however, some gorgeous lyrical tone to savour from Gérard Caussé. It was amiable enough, I suppose, but an odd choice and, in whatever guise, ultimately banal, musical form seemingly little more than a matter of adding section to section. Did this really hail from the composer of Euryanthe? It sounded closer to Donizetti.

With Brahms, inevitably, one could think and feel: now for some real music. The op.120 sonatas – sorry, clarinettists – have always seemed to me still more suited to the viola, its rich, dark tone as suited to the composer as the dark mahogany of a Hamburg panelled room. Caussé proved warm and clean of tone, well-nigh ideal. The first movement’s tempo was well chosen, also flexible without drawing attention to itself. After a slightly anonymous start, the piano grew in stature too, also benefiting from a richly Romantic tone from Michel Dalberto’s Bechstein (an excellent, fitting choice of instrument). Brahms’s rippling, cumulative complexity found a convincing dialectical relationship with his melodic (viola and piano) genius. The music sounded closer to the violin sonatas with these forces, and rightly so. Metrical dislocations told in the second movement: more the piano’s doing than the viola’s, again without exaggeration. Perhaps structure might have been a little more malleable or protean, a little less sectional; the transition back to Tempo I seemed tacked on rather than a necessity. Nevertheless, there was some fine ghostly as well as ardent playing in the reprise. The players grasped the singular mood of the finale, poised between melancholy and passion, dramatising the conflict between them.

This was, I think, the first time I had heard Liszt’s transcription of Harold en Italie. It is a marvellous work; I cannot imagine why it is not heard more often. But then Liszt is the transcriber, arranger, and paraphraser to vanquish all others, with the possible exception of his heir Busoni. I barely missed Berlioz’s orchestra at all: quite a claim, the more I think about it. In this performance, Dalberto’s piano opening was fluent, full of anticipation, quite unlike the piano reduction of the Weber piece. There were touches, if only from time to time, of Lisztian bravura too. Caussé made an amusingly melodramatic entrance on stage, ready for his viola entry, quite in keeping, I thought, with Berlioz’s Romantic sensibility and once again lavished his beautiful tone upon the music. Intriguingly, the music begins to sound more virtuosic in this transcription. Might Paganini have accepted it after all? Probably not, but I could not help but wonder. Nervous rhythmic eccentricity came across strongly too. Dalberto’s repeated piano notes towards the end were worth hearing for their own sake. The ‘Marche des pèlerins’ was on the swift side, but perhaps that was as much a matter of dealing with the piano’s relative lack of sustaining power as anything else. Both transcription and performance imbued the movement with high Romanticism, quite different from the more Classically-inclined Berlioz one hears from, say, Sir Colin Davis. The third movement was spirited and again surprisingly virtuosic (from both). It was fascinating as ever to hear how much of Liszt’s own personality shines through, even when he is as faithful to the original as here. The same could be said of the final orgy, though on occasion Dalberto’s rendition of the piano part suffered from a certain hardening of tone. I was not entirely convinced by Caussé’s exit from the stage, followed by a return for the end: too much of a good thing. However, it did mean that one concentrated, once past the surprise, upon Liszt’s piano writing. Dalberto’s rendition was not flawless but impressed nevertheless. The delightful choice of first encore – alas, I missed the second, not having realised that there would be one – was Schubert’s Ständchen, in what seemed to be Liszt’s piano transcription, with the vocal part transferred to the viola from the second stanza onwards. It sounded quite magical, performed with delightful Romantic sweep.


Mark Berry