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Thank God I'm A Country Boy

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
03/04/2003 -  
Hector Berlioz: Harold in Italy; Symphonie fantastique
Paul Silverthorne (viola)
London Symphony, Sir Colin Davis (conductor)

“…you have plucked a nosegay of the most exquisite blooms of melody,
… all in all your oratorio is a masterpiece of simplicity…”

Heine on L’Enfance du Christ

Of course, the genius of the ”Pastorale” Symphony did not spring Athena-like from the head of Zeus. Beethoven was well aware of a long tradition of pastoral music and literature. The Iliad sings of shepherds playing the syrinx (panpipes). Theocritus wrote pastoral songs in the 3rd century B.C. Virgil’s Eclogues were presented as sung mime in the 1st century B.C. Troubadors had their Pastourelles and in the 13th century Adam de la Halle presented his Jeu de Robin et Marion, an entire pastoral play set to music. Beethoven was aware of these pieces but didn’t need to look far for his inspiration. When he was twelve he had some early piano works published and they were advertised in a journal on the same page as a notice for a new pastoral symphony by one Justin Heinrich Knecht. Knecht’s A Musical Portrait of Nature was in five movements with the peace of the countryside interrupted in movement four by a thunderstorm which gradually subsides. Beethoven was familiar with the descriptions of frogs, mosquitoes and a hailstorm in Handel’s Israel in Egypt as well as the animal noises in Haydn’s Creation and drew from the spirit of these works for his own description of the countryside. He also knew that Vivaldi in The Four Seasons had composed scenes of peasant life which included birdsong and louts sleeping off the effects of a drunken party. Soon after Beethoven, Hector Berlioz would write three compositions with pastoral scenes, each of which developed a particular aspect of the great and long established tradition.

In the Symphonie fantastique (1830) Berlioz includes a movement entitled Scene in the Country. The placidity of the scene is only interrupted briefly towards the end by some distant timpani rolls suggestive of thunder. Berlioz draws on earlier works such as the Pastorale in the Italian Style of Fux, Handel’s Acis and Galatea, Haydn’s The Seasons, and the pastoral symphonies of the Mannheim school, particularly those of Cannabich. Berlioz inaugurates his own tradition by giving the main melody to the unaccompanied oboe and this melody is sustained for an extremely long time. This particular pastoral device is taken up by Berlioz admirer Richard Wagner in the sailor’s song of Act I and the shepherd’s pipes in Act III of Tristan und Isolde, by Debussy in the oboe solos in Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun, by Ravel in Daphnis and Chloe, and by the passages for natural E Flat trumpet and wordless voice in Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Pastoral Symphony.

Berlioz’ next pastoral music is found in the third movement of his concerto for viola and orchestra known as Harold in Italy. The travels of Byron’s Childe Harold take him into the Italian countryside where he encounters the music of the shepherds of the Abruzzi region. The shepherds (pifferari) play the music of the shawm (piffero), an ancient ancestor of the oboe. Their music is similar to that of the first collection of pastoral concerti, compiled in 1637 by Francesco Fiamengo and consists of constructs in triple time (3/2, 6/8, 12/8). Berlioz, the master orchestrator, creates the sound of the piffero by combining a modern flute with a modern oboe and contrasts this sound with the English horn (later the solo viola). There is also a “pifa” (pastoral symphony) in Messiah of Handel with similar music but this is scored for string orchestra alone.

The third pastoral tradition mined by Berlioz is that of Christmas Eve. Here the word pastoral means both rusticity and ministering to the flock. Berlioz’ L’Enfance du Christ is an oratorio which tells the story of the nativity in an innocent way, one which evokes the Christmas spirit of the speaking of the animals and the rural purity of the silent night. This particularly rich vein of tradition mined by Berlioz goes back to the 17th century. The Italian “ninna” is a Christmas pastorale in the form of a lullaby to the Christ child. Examples in this form were written by Fiamengo, Paisiello, and Cimarosa. Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti wrote cantatas for Christmas Eve and for First Vespers on Christmas Day which included allegorical characters both human and animal. Special concerti grossi for Christmas were written in the pastoral style by Torelli, Locatelli, and Geminiani. Corelli’s “Christmas” Concerto Grosso from the famous set of opus 6 (#8) ends with the printed phrase “Pastorale ad libitum”, that is a pastoral should be presented by the performers in an improvisatory style. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio has parts for shepherd’s instruments, including the chalumeau, oboe d’amore and oboe da caccia.

As part of the 200th birthday celebration, Sir Colin Davis brought two of these three great pastoral works to Avery Fisher last night. The two third movements in question were movingly performed by this ensemble, who seemed on their best behavior this night. The Abruzzi spirit abounded and the lovingly shaped country scene was a tonic of unhurried sound painting. That moment in the last movement of the tour of Italy when the viola out front becomes a member of an impromptu string quartet, intelligently realized this evening with a lone cellist in the back of the second violin section (this is the closest that Berlioz ever came to chamber music), was one of crystalline purity. I have great respect for Sir Colin and so it is tempting to stop at this point and let this review stand as a paean of praise. However, there were major concerns with this concert as a whole.

It is so rare in this life to get a second chance at anything significant that therefore the following incident was all the more distressing. Violist Paul Silverthorne entered the magical sound world of Berlioz not triumphantly in beauty but rather seedily cloaked in the trappings of self-effacement. Seldom have I heard such a weak entrance to a major solo work with orchestra. Now I realize that Harold is not your garden variety piece of virtuosity (the reason that Paganini refused to play it in the first place), but the viola part should be ravishing, not irrelevant. In any case, almost immediately, like the death of Salieri’s father in the film Amadeus, a miracle! Mr. Silverthorne broke a string and had no choice but to stop. Being so early on, Sir Colin decided to simply begin again, unfortunately granting Silverthorne another opportunity to squander the orchestral build-up and enter like a thief in the night. One can take only so much British reserve: the viola’s persona revealed itself to be not Lord Byron but rather Casper Milquetoast (or was it Uriah Heep?).

Sir Colin has been a Berliozian for so long that he knows the fantastique backwards. Apparently, it is forwards where he has a problem. Unable to withstand the impulse to tinker, he presented an overly mannered and rhythmically disjointed version with significantly (to be charitable) idiosyncratic phrasing decisions. What was lost was the flow of the music: the ball turned into a clog dance by the obsessive desire to never repeat a snippet of melody in the same manner. Like Roger Norrington, Davis seems to be seeking his own imprimatur and ignoring that of the composer. One can envision what the rehearsal sessions for this performance must have been, the maestro modifying his string players’ natural instincts in a style to make even B.F. Skinner proud. Davis’ bete noir is not vibrato but rather circadian rhythm: if he performed Tchaikovsky like this, even the Brits would tar and feather him. Perhaps he is just bored with the genius that he has espoused since the 1960’s. A few weeks at Club Med might be in order.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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