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Pictures from Italy

New York
Carnegie Hall
11/21/2003 -  
Hector Berlioz: Overture to Benvenuto Cellini, Harold in Italy, Roman Carnival
Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony # 4

Tabea Zimmermann (viola)
Orchestre de Paris
Christoph Eschenbach (conductor)

“There is, probably, not a famous Picture or Statue in all Italy,
but could be easily buried under a mountain of printed paper
devoted to dissertations on it.”

Charles Dickens

Who is your favorite Italian composer? Puccini? Verdi? Vivaldi? Dallapiccola? Last evening at Carnegie Hall the choice was either Hector Berlioz or Felix Mendelssohn. As in the Spanish music of Ravel, Rimski and Bizet, the most beloved impressions of these warmer climes are written from the North. Italy has been hosting tourists delightfully for over 2000 years; in a city where Michelangelo and Galileo are buried, the most visited grave in Florence may well be that of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Orchestre de Paris’ survey included two grand tours. An extremely beautiful traversal of Harold featured Tabea Zimmermann, a violist willing to assert herself and fully develop a character without ever seeming either pushy or, a common fault in interpreters of this understated piece, self-effacing. Hers was an alive adventurer, painted in primary but pastel colors, more like Strauss’ Sancho Panza and not just a quiet, disembodied obbligato. Certainly she was a master of quiet eloquence; in fact this ensemble as a whole is remarkable for its softly expressive sonorities. Her very real exit was underlined by an inspired positioning idea: Ms. Zimmermann adjourned to the dress circle where two of her colleagues awaited her for a bit of celestial chamber music, floating down as if heard from the next life. Also warm and quiet, this little passage was the evening’s most memorable, evoking for me once again Strauss, this time the sextet opening of Capriccio.

After the interval, a rousing and infectiously joyous Mendelssohn 4 held sway. Maestro Eschenbach literally leapt onto the podium to kickstart the momentum in a performance that featured very crisp wind playing and subtly colored precision percussion work. That sotto voce enunciation explored in the first half blossomed in the andante con moto, producing as lovely a whisper as one is likely to hear in our high decibel age.

These two sublime pieces were framed by the more rough and tumble pair of overtures from the opera Benvenuto Cellini, written in 1836 but, as of this writing, still never heard at the Met. As regular readers of these pages know, opera is not a part of my reviewer’s universe. However, I do occasionally go on assignment, especially for significant premieres (for example, the Moses and Aron of a few seasons past). On Thursday, December 4, I will be in the audience for the inaugural performance of this rollicking work and hope that it will be presented as such. I have some doubts, which were reinforced by this fine orchestra last night. Eschenbach’s spirited versions of both the curtain raiser and the Roman Carnival put Maestro Levine’s, tried out last spring here at Carnegie, to shame. One can only hope that the final product in the opera house will capture the insouciance of Berlioz’ writing (not to mention that of Cellini himself: the opera is especially evocative of the ribaldry that is the original Autobiography). For this evening, at least, we were all treated to a very impressive show of exactness: the tambourine playing in the carnival was in itself a primer on musical elocution and evocation. As this tremendously exciting group, greeted by not just wild applause but shouts of utter pleasure from all about the hall, started to settle in for their second encore of the night, another spine-chilling reading of the Racokszy (they even give the Hungarians a run for their money in this one), a man in back of me exclaimed to his companion “This is really great!”. All I can say is “Amen, brother!”

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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