Berlioz: Harold in Italy (Hyperion)
★★★★ (out of five)
The pianist Emanuel Ax remarked the other day that performance quality has risen so high in his lifetime that you hardly ever encounter a sub-standard orchestra. On the evidence of this release Bergen in Norway, the rainiest city on earth, boasts a Philharmonic that could be mistaken on a dull day for one in Berlin. Playing Berlioz, grand master of the art of orchestration, Bergen come through with maximum points in all departments and a deep coherence across the spectrum.
My only quibble is why the local engineers record the orchestra at a level so low that I had to adjust the volume twice upwards.
The major satisfaction here is Lawrence Power’s viola interaction with the Norwegians on a meander through sun-kissed, brigand-ridden Italian terrain. Power belies his name in holding back his full blast for dramatic peaks, and all the more effective for that. Andrew Manze dances through the score with the lightest of batons at a tempo two and a half minutes faster than Toscanini’s, which is going some. I boiled an egg in the time saved.
The bonuses are real treasures — Plaisir d’amour in Berlioz’s orchestration (who knew?) and a Berlioz-tweaked version of Carl Maria von Weber’s Invitation to the Dance. There is no better road test of an orchestra than unfamiliar Berlioz. Bergen skips through these morsels without getting their toes wet.