New York Philharmonic/Maazel

Harold en Italie, Op.16
Symphony No.1

Cynthia Phelps (viola)

New York Philharmonic
Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 25 May, 2006
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

When the New York Philharmonic had to postpone to a future season a new work by Peter Lieberson originally scheduled for this occasion, music director and conductor Lorin Maazel substituted Mahler’s First Symphony. This followed Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, with Cynthia Phelps, the Philharmonic’s principal violist, as soloist. The Berlioz and Mahler works made an interesting pairing, as both lie somewhere on the fringes of the concept of programmatic music.

Although Harold in Italy is one of Berlioz’s ‘dramatic symphonies’, it does not have a detailed story line, either of Berlioz’s creation (as with Symphonie fantastique) or from a literary source (as with “Romeo and Juliet”). Rather than portraying specific events from Byron’s “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”, Berlioz conceived the work as autobiographical, drawing on his own wanderings in the Abruzzi region of Italy and analogising himself to the Byronic hero, representing that character with the solo viola – a Berlioz innovation.

Although Berlioz called the work a “Symphony for Orchestra with Solo Viola”, it might well be regarded as a viola concerto, with support for this view coming from the composer’s instructions at the beginning of the score: “The player must stand in the foreground, near to the public and isolated from the orchestra”. Phelps herself calls Harold in Italy one of her “favourite concertos”, characterizing it as a showpiece for the viola as a big, colour instrument. An early draft of the composition was even more concerto-like, but was revised to be more symphonic in response to criticism from Niccolò Paganini, who had asked Berlioz to create a vehicle for him to show off a newly-acquired Stradivarius viola. In the end, Paganini found the work insufficiently virtuoso and withdrew from the premiere.

Phelps played with rich, singing tone in the work’s lyrical passages and with great agility in its more rapid passages. Of particular note was the extended series of arpeggios, played sul ponticello, accompanying the pilgrims’ hymn in the middle section of the second movement. Maazel brought out Berlioz’s vivid orchestral colours and rhythms, maintaining, for the most part, an appropriate balance with the solo instrument. At a few points, however, he brought the orchestral volume up a bit too high, covering Phelps’s line. Thomas Stacy’s cor anglais solo in the third movement ‘Serenade’ was beautifully played, and in the final movement the brass section was outstanding, but Maazel put a bit too much emphasis on drums and cymbals.

The original version of what we now know as Mahler’s First Symphony was labelled a symphonic poem by the composer. As it incorporated at length songs from Mahler’s earlier “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen“ (Songs of a Wayfarer), the texts of those songs inescapably provided programmatic content, including the beauties of nature to suicidal despair over lost love. That work was an immediate failure, however, so Mahler made modifications to bring it into the symphonic form we hear today. After the modifications were complete, he sought to encourage audience acceptance of the revised work by inventing descriptive titles for the movements that had played no role in its composition – for example, ‘Under Full Sail’ for the second movement. These soon fell into disuse, leaving behind the symphony in its abstract form, but sill containing extensive extracts from the Wayfarer songs.

Maazel’s reading of the Mahler First was vivid, enthusiastic, and thoroughly entertaining. The super-sized orchestra played brilliantly and Maazel blended its sounds into a resonant whole, varying the dynamics from the barely audible to the nearly painful. Maazel’s subtle variations in rhythms – in the Klezmer-like passages, for example – also enhanced the listener’s interest. Particularly memorable moments included principal double bassist Eugene Levinson’s sonorous account of the solo that begins the third movement’s parodistic funeral march, and the seven horns (standing), two timpani players and bass drummer bringing the symphony to its thrilling conclusion.

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