Thursday, November 15, 2018

Juilliard Piano Recital: Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy and Scriabin

Yesterday afternoon I went to Juilliard's Paul Hall for the first time this season to hear a recital given by the school's Piano Performance Forum.  The recital featured four pianists who among them performed works by Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy and Scriabin.

The program opened with Ke Wang performing Mozart's Piano Sonata in D Major, K. 576 (1789), one of six written for the Prussian Princess Friederike.  It is the extensive use of counterpoint in both the opening and final movements that renders this sonata so difficult to perform.  As a program note from the Seattle Symphony states:
"A playful Allegretto born of a simple melody sets the music in motion. Once Mozart presents the tune he immediately adds a contrapuntal second theme constructed from rapid 16th-note triplets. This new motive appears in inverted form above the main theme, creating an example of expert double counterpoint, a nod to Baroque era polyphony. The composer had clearly absorbed old Bach’s rich fugal style that Mozart first fully explored in 1782 when Baron von Swieten, Imperial Viennese Court librarian, had lent the composer scores from his collection of music by the Cantor of Leipzig."
I had last heard this work performed almost exactly three years ago by virtuoso András Schiff in one of a series of recitals that featured the late sonatas of the four great masters of that genre - Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

The next work was Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109 (1820) as performed by Jansen Ryder.  This piece was the first of the master's three final sonatas and, together with the Diabelli Variations he wrote during the same period, the culmination of his thoughts on music composed for the piano.  In its structure, the Op. 109 differs so markedly from all the Beethoven sonatas that had preceded it that it is fair to call it revolutionary.  The first movement is extremely short, so much so that it has been suggested that the composer originally intended the work to consist of only the latter two movements and added this one on later.  The third movement is most unusual for a sonata in that it contains a theme and variations.  Beethoven wrote the piece at the same time he was working on the Ninth Symphony and the Missa solemnis and it was obvious that he was moving into uncharted territory.  His inability to hear his own works or those of other composers had completely isolated him by this point from the world around him.  Terrible as it must have been to have been so afflicted, his condition can actually be seen as an advantage in the sense that he was free to move forward with the development of his own musical ideas without having to concern himself with popular taste or even the sound of his own works when played.  More than any other artist before or since, he was locked into the world of pure imagination and freed from any other considerations.  

This sonata too I had heard performed in 2015 by András Schiff in still another of his recitals featuring late sonatas by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. The series culminated the following year when Sir András peformed the very last sonatas by the same four masters. That performance turned out to be one of the most thrilling piano recitals I've attended at Carnegie Hall.

The next pianist to take the stage was Angie Zhang who proceeded to perform works by Beethoven and Debussy, respectively the Variations WoO 80 and the lyrical L'Isle Joyeuse.

Beethoven's works without opus number generally date from the earliest part of his career and for the most part represent youthful efforts that the composer did not consider worthy enough to be assigned a number, that designation being reserved for more important pieces.  The 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C minor, WoO 80 (1806), however, date from the middle period when Beethoven had attained full mastery of his talents and are roughly contemporaneous with the Violin Concerto and Fourth Symphony.  Although the variations certainly do not constitute a major work, it's not entirely clear why Beethoven held them in such low esteem.  They are actually quite powerful.

Debussy's L'isle joyeuse (1904) was inspired by a painting, Watteau’s enigmatic L’embarquement pour Cythère, that actually exists in two versions, the first completed in 1717 and the second the following year. Debussy was always seeking to promote French culture and would take this passion even further a decade later when his country confronted Germany in World War I. For example, his 1890 Clair de Lune was inspired by a poem by Verlaine who not so coincidentally also wrote another in praise of Watteau. There is more to Debussy's musical piece, however, than a mere a celebration of French culture. As the article in Wikipedia indicates, the painting depicts a fête galante and "celebrates love." And love was very much in the mind of the middle aged composer in 1904. He had secretly begun an affair with a banker's wife and had impetuously taken her on a romantic getaway to the island of Jersey where he revised the present work (hence the use in the title of the English "isle" rather than the French "île"). As in his orchestral work La Mer, Debussy in this piece invokes at points the movement of the sea. Far more than an impressionistic rendering of nautical sounds, though, this is an impassioned paean to illicit love as only a Frenchman could write.

The program closed with a very brief work by Scriabin, the wonderfully titled Poème satanique, Op. 36 (1903) performed by Armen Sarkisian.  The composer himself did not think highly of the work.  He complained to the critic Leonid Sabaneyev that it was "the apotheosis of insincerity. It is all hypocritical, false."  The work was written at the very end of the composer's first period when he was still very much under the influence of such Romantic composers as Chopin and Liszt, and this may account for the disdain he later felt for it.

Juilliard has an incredibly strong piano department, and the musicians at this recital demonstrated a high level of skill in performances of works that were without exception technically challenging.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Omega Ensemble Performs Beethoven, Schumann and Ravel

It was a madhouse on the Upper West Side on Sunday afternoon as runners from the New York City Marathon and the families and friends who had come to cheer them on thronged the streets and avenues.  Since many streets had already been closed off due to security concerns, traffic was at an absolute standstill.  In spite of these hectic conditions a loyal group of classical music lovers somehow managed to make their way to Christ & St. Stephen's Church on West 69th Street to hear a chamber music recital given by the Omega Ensemble.

The first musician to take the stage was "Next Generation Artist" Astra Phoon, a ten-year old prodigy who proceeded to dazzle the audience with performances first of Fabel, No. 6 of Schumann's Fantasiestücke, Op. 12 (1837) and then of Liszt's Au Bord d'une source, though the program failed to note which of the three versions was used.

The recital proper opened with Ravel's Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major (1923-1927). As the numbering would indicate, this was the composer's second attempt at a violin sonata. The No. 1 in A major, however, was a student piece from 1897 of which only the first movement was completed. The No. 2 was an entirely different matter. This is one of the most intriguing violin sonatas in the twentieth century repertoire, and I've always been puzzled that it is not performed more often in recital. Here Ravel is masterful and inventive while purporting to demonstrate the basic incompatability of the violin and piano. This can be seen most clearly in the first movement where the two instruments are not so much playing with one another as against one another. But it is the second movement marked Blues - Moderato that is the most interesting. Ravel had encountered the blues first hand in Paris when W.C. Handy had toured there, but the French composer adapted it through his own sensibilities so that it became, in his own words, "French music" distinct from its sources. The work was performed by violinist Kevin Zhu and pianist David Fung.

The next work was another Schumann "fantasy piece," Drei Fantasiestücke, Op. 73 (1849), originally written for clarinet and piano but here arranged for cello and piano. Though Schumann was the first to coin the term fantasiestücke, the concept of fantasy was at the heart of the Romantic movement; its origins can in fact be traced back to the stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann. The present piece fits the term very well. The first two movements are for the most part dreamy and ethereal but the third, marked Rasch und mit Feuer ("Fast and with Fire") spins off crazily as if the musicians were suddenly possessed. One thinks, of course, of Schumann's breakdown five years later and wonders if there is in this music a premonition of that calamity. On this piece pianist David Fung was joined by cellist Gabriel Cabezas.

After a brief intermission, all three musicians returned to the stage for a performance of the Piano Trio in E-flat major, Op. 70, No. 2 (1808). Not nearly as famous as its companion piece, the "Ghost," the No. 2 is nevertheless a major work. At the time he wrote it, Beethoven was at the height of his powers and so confident in his abilities that he no longer worried himself over comparisons to his predecessors. He could instead afford to pay an appreciative tribute in this work to his old teacher Haydn. The trio's opening, for example, in its use of a slow introduction followed by a lively allegro hearkens back to Haydn's Symphony No. 103, the "Drumroll," also in the key of E-flat major, while the double variation in the second movement allegretto mimics the use of that same device in the symphony's second movement andante. But Beethoven then proceeds to dazzle his audience with audacious innovations that demonstrate he owes nothing to anyone. This can best be seen in the recapitulation of the opening movement's first theme, introduced in D-flat major by the cello only to be immediately taken up by the piano in E-flat major, a correction so swift and drastic it seems almost a mistake.  But it is when comparing the present piece to Haydn's own piano trios that the differences between the two composers can best be appreciated. Although Haydn composed some forty-five trios, many of them of the highest quality, he invariably assigned the most importance to the piano part and used the strings primarily as accompaniment. In so doing, he was following the tradition of the Baroque trio sonata, in which one or two instruments are given prominence as "soloists" while the others, generally harpsichord and cello, are used as continuo. In contrast, Beethoven here gives all three instruments major roles in working out his musical ideas. As a result, this work is necessarily more complex and better balanced than the trios of Haydn. The interaction among the three instruments imbues the trio with greater depths of expression than would otherwise be possible.

The Omega Ensemble has been in existence since the 1970's and consistently provides a high level of musicianship at its performances.  Sunday afternoon's recital was no exception.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Juilliard Piano Recital: Bach, Chopin, Haydn and Rachmaninoff

Earlier this week I went to Alice Tully Hall to hear the first installment of this season's Wednesdays at One, Juilliard's midday series of concerts and recitals at which promising musicians have an opportunity to display their talents.  On this occasion it was the solo piano music of Bach, Chopin, Haydn and Rachmaninoff that that was featured during the hour-long recital.

The program opened with a performance by Sylvia Jiang of Bach's French Suite No. 5 in G major, BWV 816 (1722-1723).  The French Suites (a name never given the work by Bach himself) are a set of six keyboard suites, each of which contains several Baroque dance movements, written for instructional purposes during the composer's sojourn in Köthen. a period during which he wrote some of his most important works, including the cello suites, the orchestral suites, and the Brandenburg Concertos.  The Suite No. 5 contains seven movements, the most famous of which is the gavotte.

There were several works by Chopin on the program.  The first was the lovely Barcarolle in F-sharp major, Op. 60 (1845-1846) as performed by Alexander Yau.  The barcarolle form itself is derived from Venetian gondoliers's traditional folk music and is charactierized by a rhythm reminiscent of the sweep of oars through still waters.  Probably the most famous example of this genre is the hauntingly beautiful Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour that opens the third act of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman.

The next pianist to take the stage was Jun Hwi Cho who performed Haydn's two-movement Sonata in C major, Hob. XVI:48 (1789).  Although short in length, the sonata contains some of Haydn's most original music as the composer here took advantage of recent improvements in fortepiano design.  The opening movement is a free form fantasia that employs Haydn's signature alternating, or double, variations while the second movement rondo is filled with the wit that would characterize his later works.  It's apparent from this sonata that Haydn was finding new confidence as a composer even before achieving the fame that accompanied his first visit to London two years later in 1791.

Rachmaninoff, one of the twentieth century's greatest composers for solo piano, was represented at this recital by four of his Op. 23 Preludes (1901-1903) - No. 1 in F-sharp minor, No. 2 in B-flat major, No. 3 in D minor, and No. 5 in G minor - as performed by Aleksandra Kausman.  Though for obvious reasons Rachmaninoff's Preludes are often compared to those by Chopin, the two actually have little in common.  To me, Rachmaninoff's have always seemed to display deeper feeling; they are truly suffused with the spirit of Russian Romanticism.  I once heard Vladimir Horowitz play two of the Op. 32 Preludes (the G major and G-sharp minor) and thought them the high point of that long ago recital.  The Op. 23 G minor, composed two years before the others, is deservedly the best known of the earlier set.  The pervasive sense of melancholy in the central section never fails to move the audience. 

The program concluded with a performance by Biguo Xing of Chopin's Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52 (1842, revised 1843).  The ballade genre itself was Chopin's own invention and was reputed, at least by Robert Schumann, to have been inspired by the poetry of Adam Mickiewicz.  All four are extremely complex works but the fourth most especially so in its extensive use of counterpoint and its simultaneous development of both the first and second themes.  It's a truly amazing work and arguably Chopin's greatest achievement as a composer.

This was an excellent recital with an eclectic program in which the Romanticism of Chopin and Rachmaninoff was nicely balanced by the Bach and Haydn selections. The Juilliard pianists were all extremely skilled and each drew a large round of applause from the audience.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Carnegie Hall: Czech Philharmonic Performs Dvořák

On Saturday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the Czech Philharmonic, led by its Music Director and Chief Conductor, Semyon Bychkov, perform a program consisting of only two works, both of them by the most famous of all Czech composers, Antonin Dvořák.  This was especially appropriate as the following day, October 28th, marked the 100th anniversary of the Czech Republic's independence from the Austro-Hungarian empire.

The concert opened with a performance of the Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 (19894-1895)  that featured Alisa Weilerstein as soloist.  If the works Dvořák composed while visiting the United States aren't his greatest - though I for one strongly feel that they are - they are certainly his most popular, notably the Symphony No. 9 and the String Quartet No. 12.  There was something about the Native American and Afro-American music he heard while in this country that brought out the best in the composer.  The Cello Concerto, however, the last work Dvořák wrote before returning to Europe, does not show these influences as strongly.  Instead, the most compelling influence on the concerto was the music of fellow European Victor Herbert who was on the faculty of the National Conservatory of Music during the period when Dvořák served as its Director.  Herbert, who at the time he met Dvořák was on the cusp of beginning his career as the most famous composer of American operettas, was himself a superb cellist.  His own Cello Concerto No. 2 in E minor greatly affected Dvořák when he heard it performed in New York City and determined him to write his own.

Another influence on the composition of the Cello Concerto was far more personal.  Dvořák intended the work as a tribute to his sister-in-law Josefina who was then suffering her final illness.  He went so far as to quote in the melancholy second movement Kéž duch můj sám, Josefina's favorite among his four Op. 82 songs.  It was this deep personal significance that led Dvořák to reject any changes to the piece as he had written it.  This led to conflict with his friend Hanuš Wihan, the cellist for whom he had originally written the work, who had composed two cadenzas that Dvořák ultimately refused to accept.

After intermission came the final work on the program and another in a minor key, the Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70 (1885).  Though long overshadowed by the enormously popular No. 9, it is really the No. 7, written some eight years earlier, that is generally considered the composer's finest symphony.  It also carries with it more baggage than any other of Dvořák's works.  Proposed sources of inspiration range from the death of Dvořák's mother two years earlier to the arrival of a trainload of Czech political activists at the Prague railway station.  It seems far more likely, however, that Dvořák, enjoying a growing international repuation ever since having won the Austrian Prize in 1876 and 1877, wanted to come up with a powerful work that would cement his position as a leading European composer.  This would account for the absence of the Czech folk sources that had previously characterized Dvořák's work and in their place a far greater attention to classical structure.  Dvořák had been greatly impressed by the symphonies of his mentor Brahms and no doubt wanted to compose an orchestral work of comparable stature even if different in style.

The No. 7 is filled with somber moments, most particularly in the opening and closing movements, and Dvořák himself wrote on the score the inscription "From the sad years."  And then there is the funeral march in the final movement.  Nevertheless, it is usually a mistake to confuse an artist's creations with his or her biography.  Any sense of tragedy would more likely be due to the serious intentions Dvořák brought to this project than to any events in his personal life.

The Czech Philharmonic, though it doesn't receive as much attention as some other European orchestras, is an excellent ensemble and its leader, Semyon Bychkov, whom I had not seen in several years, a top-notch conductor.  The Cello Concerto, played beautifully by Alisa Weilerstein, was especially moving at this performance.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Mrt Opera: Elīna Garanča Sings in Samson et Dalila

On Saturday afternoon I paid my first visit to the Met Opera this season to see the new production of Samson et Dalila, the three act opera composed between 1867 and 1876 by Camille Saint-Saëns.

Though Saint-Saëns was already a well known composer by the time he commenced work on Samson et Dalila - this was his Op. 47 - neither he nor his librettist Ferdinand Lemaire had had much actual experience with opera.  (Lemaire was, in fact, an amateur poet who had come to Saint-Saëns attention only through his marriage to the composer's cousin.)   Saint-Saëns had originally thought to compose an oratorio along the lines Voltaire had suggested in his own libretto for Rameau's opera Samson.  In the event, it was Lemaire who convinced Saint-Saëns that the subject would be better treated as an opera.  Astonishingly, even though Rameau's eighteenth century work had never been staged due to troubles with the French censors, or so at least Voltaire claimed, Saint-Saëns was unaware that his own opera would face the exact same problem.  He should certainly have realized that even in worldly nineteenth century Paris Biblical stories were not considered proper fare for the stage.  When at length Saint-Saëns learned of the dilemma he very nearly gave up the project and even went so far as to stop work on it for two years.

If anyone is to be credited with the eventual success of Samson et Dalila it is Franz Liszt.  After having played through the score of the opera as it then stood, the former Weimar Kapellmeister promised Saint-Saëns he would arrange for a performance once the work had been completed and proved as good as his word.  The libretto having been translated into German for the occasion, the opera premiered in December 1877 and was a resounding success even though several more years elapsed before the work found a permanent place in the repertoire.

As the Met's program notes point out, the key to the opera's success is a series of contrasts juxtaposed one against the other.  Thus, at the very opening, the austerity of the Hebrew chorus immediately precedes the more lightweight and exotic music of the Philistines.  This helps reinforce the religious nature of Samson's story as one in which love of God is set against shallow worldliness.  The conflict between these is developed inexorably through the three acts until it at last finds resolution in Samson's destruction of the pagan temple.

The cast was excellent but unfortunately Samson et Dalila, filled as it is with beautiful music, does not contain that many noteworthy arias.  As it was, Elīna Garanča, as Dalila, was superb when singing Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix in Act II, and Roberto Alagna was truly affecting when voicing his repentance while toiling at the grist mill in Act III, Scene 1.  One only wishes Saint-Saëns had given these two more opportunities to display their talents.  On the podium, Mark Elder's conducting was adequate if undistinguished.

As for the production by Darko Tresnjak, it was obvious the Met was ready yet again to sacrifice dramatic integrity to special effects.  The sets for Act II as well as Act III, Scene 1 were more appropriate to a low budget sci fi movie than French grand opera.  The flash-bang finale itself could have come from a Star Wars film.  The costumes for the famous Act III Bacchanale ballet were also a disappointment though I thought the choreography itself very accomplished.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Met Museum: Delacroix Paintings and Lithographs

After having seen in September the Met Museum's exhibit of Delacroix drawings (see my October 1 post) entitled Devotion to Drawing, I returned to last week to see the even larger exhibit of paintings and lithographs entitled simply Delacroix.  To call the show immense is an understatement; it stretches through multiple galleries and contains representative masterpieces from all phases of the artist's long career.  Only the large mural paintings, such as the iconic Liberty Leading the People, are missing as these were too fragile to travel from the Louvre.  The show was obviously intended to be the blockbuster exhibit of 2018, and it succeeds admirably in its aim.

There are over 150 works on view at the exhibit and their very abundance in so many different genres can bewilder the viewer.  As one proceeds through the galleries, however, certain themes and motifs become apparent.  The first and most apparent of these is of course Romanticism, the movement that had begun in the artist's youth and was still a powerful force in the arts at the time of his death in 1863.  One has only to look at Delcroix's youthful self-portrait as the character Ravenswood, from the Walter Scott novel The Bride of Lammermoor, to see the influence Romanticism had upon him and how closely he identified with it.  It informed not only his choice of subjects, many of them taken from the works of legendary Romantic writers, but also his manner of painting in which he rejected Classical academic formulae in favor of broad sweeping brushstrokes and a dazzling array of colors.

A large number of works at the exhibit were inspired by Delacroix's journey to Morocco in 1832 as part of the official French diplomatic mission to the court of Sultan Abd er-Rahman.  Though the mission itself was a failure and could not prevent the outbreak of the Franco-Moroccan War several years later, the locale did provide Delacroix with a wealth of imagery that was to form the basis of some of his most satisfying paintings.  Viewing works such as Street in Meknes and Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, it can readily be seen that it was Delacroix rather than his rival Ingres or the academician Gérôme, who was the true father of Orientalism in the early nineteenth century.

So much attention has been given to Delacroix's Romanticism that the utter naturalism of his technique has often been overlooked.  The artist's absolute fidelity to nature can be seen most clearly in his depictions of animals.  There are several studies of tigers at this exhibit, and it's obvious the artist spent quite a bit of time observing these powerful animals.  The best is the 1830 Young Tiger Playing with its Mother in which the playfulness of the young cub is in sharp contrast to the stately bearing of the adult female.  Much more dramatic is the 1828 lithograph Wild Horse Felled by a Tiger that is absolutely devoid of sentimentality as it depicts the ruthless struggle of animals in the wild to survive.  Horses themselves were another favorite subject of Delacroix, and were often shown in battle scenes such as the action filled 1826 oil on canvas Combat of the Giaour and Hassan whose subject was taken from an 1813 poem by Byron.  It is an indoor scene of two horses alone, however, that is most stirring in its compact rendering of a life and death struggle.  The late 1860 oil on canvas Arab Horses Fighting in a Stable must certainly represent a scene Delacroix had actually witnessed almost thirty years before in Morocco and had never been able to put from his mind.

One cannot discuss the corrent show without mentioning Delacroix's seventeen lithograph illustrations for a new edition of Goethe's Faust.  Seen here together for the first time, they provide an illustrated narrative as compelling as Goethe's own.  In fact, upon seeing Plate No. 16 in which Faust and Mephistopheles gallop past the scaffolds on Walpurgis Night, Goethe is said to have remarked that Delacroix had thought out the scene better than had the poet himself.  There's more than a touch of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique here, though the musical work was not composed until several years after Delacroix had completed his series.  And Plate No. 15, in which Marguerite's ghost appears to Faust, is a truly Gothic vision whose macabre elements reveal Romanticism taken to its ultimate extent.  This plate, like the others displayed here, is not in its final state and has doodles to the side of the frame that were later removed in the final version.  The offhand drawings provide a fascinating insight into the artist's creative process.

The exhibit continues thtough January 6, 2019.

Monday, October 15, 2018

WQXR / Carnegie Hall: Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique Performs Berlioz

Yesterday afternoon, WQXR broadcast a live concert from Carnegie Hall that featured the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, conducted by its Artistic Director Sir John Eliot Gardiner, performing the first of two all-Berlioz programs, the second of which takes place this evening.

Berlioz is remembered today primarily for his youthful Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 (1830).  It's an extraordinary achievement, of course, but its very success has had the unfortunate consequence not only of overshadowing the major works that followed but also of handing down to posterity the garish image of Berlioz as a love-besotted opium addict pounding furiously on the drums at the work's premiere.  He himself was aware of the problem he had so thoughtlessly created and later in life tried to distance himself as much as possible from the Symphonie's lurid program, writing on the score in 1855, a quarter century after the fact:
"If the symphony is performed on its own as a concert piece... one may even dispense with distributing the programme and keep only the title of the five movements. The author [Berlioz] hopes that the symphony provides on its own sufficient musical interest independently of any dramatic intention."
If nothing else, the ORR's two-night stand at Carnegie Hall should hopefully give the audience a better appreciation of Berlioz's accomplishments, especially as the second concert will feature a performance not only of Symphonie but also of its far calmer "sequel" Lélio, Op. 14b (1831).  

Sunday afternoon's program opened with Le Corsaire Overture, Op. 21 (1844). Though Berlioz's source of inspiration for this rousing piece has been attributed to both Byron's The Corsair and James Fenimore Cooper's The Red Rover, both of which would have appealed to Berlioz's Romantic imagination, the music is certainly original enough that there's no need to strain to make it fit a literary program.  Since the overture was actually composed in a tower in Nice where Berlioz was recovering from an illness, its original title La tour de Nice is probably as appropriate as any.

In addition to his orchestral writing, Berlioz composed extensively for voice, though much of this music is not often heard.  At this concert, mezzo-soprano Lucile Richardot first performed the ill-fated La mort de Cléopâtre (1829), the third of four cantatas submitted by Berlioz to the Paris Conservatoire over four successive years in hopes of winning the prestigious Prix de Rome.  (He finally achieved his goal with the fourth, the 1830 Sardanapale, which he subsequently destroyed.)  It's not difficult to understand why Cléopâtre failed to win an award.  The conservative judges must have been shocked to hear this morbid music so well suited to the death throes of a suicidal queen.  So subversive was the piece - one can actually hear the slowing of Cleopatra's heart after she's been bitten by the asp - that no award at all was given that year.  Berlioz himself was unrepentant, writing:
“It’s a bit difficult to write soothing music for an Egyptian queen bitten by a poisonous snake and dying a painful death in an agony of remorse.”
Following the cantata came an orchestral selection from Part II of Les Troyens (1856-1858), the only one of Berlioz's operas to have attained anything like a permanent place in the repertoire.  Chasse Royale et Orage, which makes rare use of "sax-horns" among the brass, also allowed Ms. Richardot's voice a needed rest before she began singing the aria Je vais mourir ... Adieu, fière cité, the death scene of Queen Dido also from Part II of Les Troyens.  I thought this an excellent choice as it allowed the audience to judge for themselves the different manner in which Berlioz treated the deaths of two legendary queens after an interval of so many years between the composition of the respective works.

After intermission, the program closed with a performance of Harold en Italie, Op. 16 (1834) that featured violist Antoine Tamestit as soloist.  Although subtitled a "Symphony in Four Parts with Viola Obbligato," the work is neither a traditional symphony nor a viola concerto but could more properly be termed a tone poem (very) loosely based on Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.  In a sense, Niccolò Paganini, for whom the work was originally composed, was quite right to reject it as the piece is much more an inward journey in which Berlioz revisits his memories of Abruzzi than it is a virtuoso showpiece.  And yet the viola, Harold's voice, is at the same time an integral part of the music.  Berlioz himself provided a brilliant analysis of the instrument's role:
"As in the Symphonie fantastique, a principal theme (the viola’s opening melody) is reproduced throughout the work. The difference is that whereas in the Symphonie fantastique, the idée fixe keeps obtruding like an impassioned obsession on scenes that are alien to it and deflects their course, Harold’s melody is superimposed on the other orchestral voices, and contrasts with them in tempo and character without interrupting their development."
Along with Liszt and Wagner, Berlioz was one of the three great proponents of the "new music" and extremely innovative in developing what then purported to be a revolutionary musical idiom.  The ORR deserves a great deal of praise for bringing his music to a wider audience in such exemplary fashion.  The conductor, orchestra members and soloists all contributed to an outstanding performance.

The archived performance is available for listening on WQXR's website.