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Wthenthector Berlioz died 150 years ago,the left an apparently meagre legacy for string players. For violin, there is the short Rêverie et caprice of 1841, based on music withdrawn from his opera Benvenuto Cellini. And while Harold en Italie is undeniably a landmark in the viola repertoire, many viola players have felt ambivalent towards it at some point, seeing it as a lost opportunity.

The story of the work’s conception is widely known: Paganini asked Berlioz to write him a viola piece, butthe rejected it at the planning stage because of its plain solo part, only to change his mind to the tune of 20,000 francs whenthe inallytheard it. According to his memoirs, Berlioz feltthe had insuicient understanding of the viola to write a virtuoso part for it. So, instead,the devised a symphonic tone poem with obbligato viola. ‘I was conident,’the writes, ‘that by the incomparable power of his playing, Paganini would be able to maintain the supremacy of the soloist.’

Berlioz admits that once Paganini’s interest cooledthe gave up trying to write an especially soloistic part.the did, however, stick to the planthe had concocted of ‘a series of orchestral scenes in which the viola would be involved […] like an actual person, retaining the same character throughout’. hat character would be ‘a melancholy dreamer in the style of Byron’s Childe Harold’. his does at least compensate for the piece’s lack of technical diiculty, as Antoine Tamestit has recently pointed out (bit.ly/2Yb2gHc). Formerly indiferent to Harold en Italie, Tamestit found new depths in the piece whenthe began tackling it ‘in the way I would an opera in which I need to learn to breathe life into a role’.

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The Strad
July 2019

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