Such enterprising programming was welcome even if no theme was evident – Italy aside, of course: Berio was born there, Berlioz visited the place, and Liszt documented aspects of the country in one of his ‘Years of Pilgrimage’ piano cycles.
Luciano Berio composed Sinfonia (1968) for Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, the composer adding a fifth movement after the premiere. Since then, Sinfonia has enjoyed numerous outings and recordings. This one from the LSO and Daniel Harding was a particular success, relishing Berio’s multi-language, multi-source creation – Claude Lévi-Strauss and Samuel Beckett are in there – resourcefully laid-out for eight voices and large orchestra, the vocalists required to recite not only words but create many effects, all valiantly and effortlessly delivered by Synergy Vocals with confidence and interaction, the voice-amplified balance especially well-judged, coordination between the octet and the orchestra spot-on, not least in the central Mahler-based tableau in which quotations abound – from La mer, La valse, The Rite of Spring, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, and Der Rosenkavalier – and no doubt other pieces: impossible to take-in every note and vestige of speech, yet there is a coming-together that is apparent through Berio’s carefully crafted overlay on Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony third-movement, whether with his own or others’ music or the voiced jingles. The outer sections of Sinfonia can be hallucinatory or look-back to Plainchant, and the closing movement’s rapidity is not only exhilarating but thrillingly cumulative before the final evaporation. There are moments when the text can be changed to suit the moment, thus “Harold in Italy” (obvious enough) and “tulips” (less so) were here interpolated, and Myaskovsky continues to hold his own. If only the Yamaha could have masqueraded more convincingly as a harpsichord, but given the ambitious programme as a whole and its preparation, this was a Berio Sinfonia to be proud – Harding a consummate master of ceremonies for its 35 minutes – and a timely reminder of this composer’s breathtaking imagination and skill.
The same could be said for Liszt’s ingenious way with cyclical procedures and form – for this account of Piano Concerto No.1 (a product of his Weimar years) vibrantly attested to Liszt’s originality and was also the ideal vehicle for the barefooted Alice Sara Ott (replacing Lang Lang at short notice). She was grand and rhetorical (without forcing), lyrical (without cloying), glittering (without bling), fiery (but not of the flamethrower variety) and loving (without smothering), exploiting an affecting range from dramatically potent to caressing. She’s a sensitive accompanist, too. It was that good, and an awful lot happened in nineteen minutes! If youthful exuberance (German-Japanese Ott is but 22) threatened to runaway with the closing bars, the LSO and Harding were with her all the way, and there was nothing stand-in about her playing (Deutsche Grammophon has just issued her recording of the work, made a year ago) – indeed she seemed to savour every moment – or the evident teamwork established in an instant, Andrew Marriner gracing the first movement with some liquid clarinet solos. Ott offered an encore, Chopin’s C sharp minor Nocturne, the one that escaped an opus number, playing it raptly to a hushed audience. She’ll be back!
This was where the interval occurred. Better to have had it after the Berio, which is a demanding listen and warrants some post-performance reflection. Having the break at this point would have avoided the 12-minute platform-change of removing loudspeakers and attendant cabling as well as exchanging cellos and second violins, allowing the latter to be antiphonal with the firsts, Harding’s preferred layout (the basses were already left-positioned). All this could have been achieved as the interval proper.
If Ott had been the ‘lady in red’, then Tabea Zimmermann opted for head-to-toe white, discreetly sitting down for those passages where the viola is silent, the long introduction and most of the finale; Harold in Italy is after all a ‘symphony with viola’. The LSO has an experience with Berlioz’s music that is possibly unrivalled, built up over many years with Colin Davis. Such familiarity was evident from the outset of Harold in Italy, the cellos and basses quietly growling with purpose, Harding immediately establishing Berlioz’s mix of self-portrait as inspired by Byron’s “Childe Harold” and then articulated through the viola’s plentiful but sombre personality. The LSO was at once compelling in suggesting introspection through translucent scoring – Berlioz writes for pairs of the usual woodwinds (extending to glinting piccolo and mellifluous cor anglais) but asks for four bassoons – Zimmermann a richly expressive exponent of the obbligato
viola part (not showy enough for Paganini who rejected the work), Harding bringing out Berlioz’s rascally rhythms and hyper decoration with delight. The middle movements were respectively of a moonlit nocturnal tread, Zimmermann making much of arpeggios and harmonics, and rapturous serenading. Harding might well have crashed in with the finale, but he paused too long and this orgy (after reminiscences of earlier material) didn’t quite catch the last degree of abandon, although it was certainly shapely, and something was held in reserve for the electrifying coda to offset Harold’s cutting away from the revelry to make a string-quartet in the company of a distant trio (although further into the wings would have been preferable). Nevertheless, Harold in Italy, one of the highpoints of nineteenth-century Romanticism, emerged with its glory intact, the concert itself unhackneyed in content and frightfully well brought off.