Les Nuits D’Été
Harold en Italie

Michael Spyres           Tenor
Timothy Ridout          Viola

Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra
John Nelson                Conductor

Full price

The Review

It is perhaps unfortunate that two recordings featuring Michael Spyres should arrive in the same post, the other being of Rossini’s Missa di Gloria, because I was not convinced in either case.

His lower and middle registers are impressive but the moment he starts rising into the upper reaches of tenordom the voice turns thin and acid. It is as if he is really a baritone convinced he should be able to soar and I’m afraid the wings melt.

In any case, while there are perfectly respectable reasons for having these marvellous songs of Summer nights sung by male voice, they do lose the magic that a veiled mezzo-soprano sound brings to them. Spyres’ interpretation is sensitive but he tends to run out of breath in the long lines of the gorgeous third song, Sur les Lagunes, resulting in tones which don’t have the necessary support. There is too much effort on show in all the songs, too many vocal inconsistencies in an otherwise deeply thought-out reading. It is a pity because Nelson and his Strasbourg forces accompany with real attention to ensemble and detail.

That most vocal of tenor instruments, the viola, shows how Berlioz’ music should sound. Tim Ridout finds some gorgeous variations of colour and dynamic in Harold In Italy, the symphonic concerto on Byron’s atmospheric but rather tiresome poem (sorry but I’ve always thought Byron was a bit of a shit, despite tending to agree with his politics). Berlioz elevates Childe Harold to the epiome of the Romantic adventurer, rather more of an explorer than the composer, though their temperaments had much in common.

Tim Ridout takes on the often Alpine orchestra, bombastic and threatening, with vigour: a lone voice against the forces of nature. He brings to it the expressive passion that Strauss later expected from the cello in his depiction of Don Quixote. The second movement March of the Pilgrims is, frankly, a little dull and must have seemed so to Paganini, who comissioned the work. Ridout sees us through it but it is a relief to get to the cheerful Serenade from a man of the Abruzzi mountains to his mistress that follows it, a pastorale that Ridout savours with delicious but rather restrained ardour. Somehow one feels that Italian highlanders would be a touch more demonstrative.

Berlioz’ marking for the opening of the final movement is one of those that could be said to describe great chunks of his music – Allegro frenetico! Rather disapointingly, I always feel, Byron and Berlioz had Harold as a detached onlooker at the Orgy of the Brigands: simply not the sort of thing Gentlemen got up to, at least not in public. He barely gets a look-in, something else that must have infuriated Paganini but the great virtuoso should have realised that Berlioz did not write concertos. If he wanted one, he should have gone to Vieuxtemps. Nelson conducts the scenery with the right energy and vim, though, and the orchestra, not one of Europe’s most famous, do their reputation no harm at all. This is definitely worth having for Ridout’s Harold and a performance that captures the symphonic grandeur of Berlioz’ Byronic adventure.