“You may have the universe if I may have Italy,” sings the Roman general Ezio in Verdi’s “Attila.” And for reasons you don’t really need me to spell out, many composers across music history seem to have agreed. For evidence we need only point to the fruitfulness of the various Italian sojourns undertaken by composers ranging from Handel to Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky to Bizet.
Count Berlioz and Sibelius on this list, too. And while their relationships to the place were not uncomplicated, both created abiding masterworks indelibly linked to their time spent under Mediterranean skies: Berlioz’s “Harold in Italy” and Sibelius’s Second Symphony. On Thursday night, conductor Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra paired both of these scores on the ensemble’s second program of the season.
Berlioz’s “Harold in Italy” was first up, preceded by Zander’s lucid commentary from the stage. “Harold” in truth is a rather curious work, neither fish nor fowl, occupying a space somewhere between a traditional viola concerto and a symphony with solo viola. Whatever label one prefers, its charm flows easily, its dramatic scenes are as vivid as they come, and its harmonic world feels distinctly warmed by the sun. The score’s protagonist (Harold, embodied by the viola) wanders widely through the countryside, a kind of freelance Byronic hero with a C string, encountering pilgrims’ processions, Abruzzi serenades, and a spicier scene the composer labels “Brigands’ orgy.”
Thursday night’s account boasted a Harold of uncommon character and quality in violist Kim Kashkashian, whose performance was all dark-amber tone, musical nuance, and glowing charisma. In the third movement, Zander’s novel take on some traditionally knotty tempo relationships proved eminently persuasive. It seemed that many in the audience were hearing “Harold” for the first time; It would be hard to imagine a more welcoming introduction.
As for Sibelius, he did in fact write his storied Second Symphony in Rapallo, Italy, but this sweepingly dramatic music has always (and rightly) been associated with the craggy majesty of the Finnish landscapes that remained the composer’s spiritual home. On Thursday, from the score’s pulsating opening bars, the Boston Philharmonic as a whole sounded thoroughly reinvigorated. The grand ascent to Sibelius’s glorious finale managed to maintain both a sense of inevitability and surprise. In between, what this performance occasionally lacked in details of phrasing and coloristic imagination, it more than made up for in rhythmic drive and sheer visceral expression. The crowd’s response was immediate.
BOSTON PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA
Benjamin Zander, conductor
At Sanders Theatre, Thursday night (repeats Nov. 11 in Jordan Hall and Nov. 12 in Sanders Theatre)