I didn't come to this disc with high expectations. After all, the first volume in Gergiev's LSO/Berlioz cycle had left me distinctly unimpressed. This one was a lot better than I was expecting, however. That's in no small part due to the playing of viola superstar Antoine Tamestit. More than most, he persuades you that the viola is actually acting a part here. His first entrance with Harold's theme, for example, suggests a personality that is reflective, responsive and warm, but at the same time a little withdrawn, and this level of characterisation continues throughout the piece. I loved the way, for example, he instantly shades back his playing in the theme's second appearance so that it sounds much more shy, and is then almost carried away by the grandeur and ecstasy of the mountains in which he roams as the first movement proceeds. He is then steadily affected by the different contexts in which it appears. Harold seems not only contemplative, but also rather confused and even a little conflicted in the presence of the pilgrims. He is carried away by the local colour of the Serenade, and his playing of the recollections at the start of the finale seems to bid a fond farewell not just to them but to the soloist's role in the piece. He is very fine indeed, and elevates this performance to something above the mediocre.
Gergiev isn't bad, either. He controls the opening fugato in a way that is brooding and mysterious without ever sounding too gloomy, and the gathering excitement of the rest of the first movement comes across very naturally in his hands, backed by exciting playing from the orchestra every step of the way, with a conclusion that is suitably headlong. The pilgrims' march also unfolds steadily like a great arch, with a persuasive lilt to its main theme, and the winds enjoy themselves enormously in the third movement. Unsurprisingly, Gergiev is most at home during the helter-skelter of the Brigands' scene, which he enlivens with all the red-blooded tension you would expect of him, lightening things for the interludes so as to provide just enough contrast. Colin Davis need fear nothing from the comparison, but this Harold isn't at all bad, and is worth checking out for Tamestit alone.
Things improve still further when Karen Cargill arrives for Le Mort de Cléopâtre. She impressed me mightily when she recorded this scene for Linn, and she is every bit as impressive here, perhaps even pushed to still greater things due to the scale of the orchestra that accompanies her. There is fear combined with resignation in her opening, but there is wounded dignity, too. This Cleopatra is like wounded lion, and the high notes, which Cargill crests with ease, only underline the queen's grandeur which is undiminished in her suffering. Terror then sets in with her address to her ancestors, but resolution as she determines to take her own life.
The orchestra responds in kind. At the opening the strings sound as though they are reeling, having lost their senses, and the conception is much more symphonic, even operatic than in Cargill's recent recording with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. I loved the sense of an orchestral procession at Grands Pharaons, as Cleopatra imagines the shades of her ancestors appearing before her, the repeated rhythmic pizzicati underlining the queen's terror. The string shudder before Dieux du Nil is very evocative, and leaves you in no doubt as to what is going on. The final passage, ebbing away to nothing, reminds you of just how original Berlioz was, and how daring he was being when he submitted this for the Prix de Rome, and serves to underline what a great performance this is.
So while no one will get rid of their previous versions, this one is an interesting alternative.