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The Independent Culture

Like Sir Colin Davis, Berlioz's King Lear is a vigorous old man shaking his fist at the elements in a series of declamatory string unisons. The two got on famously in the composer's concert overture, whose tragic rhetoric is primarily driven by the contrast between the old king's gruff, faltering, string bass lines and the airy, artless oboe that represents Cordelia.

She might have wandered into the sultry nocturnal world of dreams that is Les nuits d't. But Davis had cast the German soprano Anne Schwanewilms, whose handsome, beautifully produced Strauss voice probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Only time will tell if she can inhabit these songs as Berlioz intended because, right now, she has no idea of their sound or style or unique sensibility. Language was at the heart of the problem here, with barely a word of the French distinguishable through the open vowels and opulent, even plummy, delivery. It was all one colour, and the wrong colour at that.

It's the seductiveness of the words that dictates the colour of the sound. Schwanewilms found no illicit pleasure in them. Her phrasing was square and unyielding. Without the texts in front of us could we have hazarded a guess as to their content? I doubt it.

An equally beautiful but on this occasion more seductive voice that of Tabea Zimmermann's viola has come to inhabit the Byronic world of Berlioz's Harold in Italy so completely that it is hard now to imagine anyone else playing the piece. From the moment her big mahogany sound stepped across the craggy threshold of the opening mountainscape it was clear that this Childe Harold had already found himself.

How well she knows her place in the great scheme of this piece. Her hazy arpeggiations in the second movement's "March of pilgrims", so relaxed in its balmy Italianate manner as to be almost horizontal, were perfection, while the Abruzzian serenade of the third brought out her chamber-music skills in alliance with some of Berlioz's most creative woodwind writing. The LSO players were winning. Davis looked a man in his element. It doesn't get a lot better.

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