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On 27 January 2018, the Royal Orchestral Society celebrate the 170th anniversary of the London premiere of Harold in Italy, performed at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane under the Baton of Berlioz himself.

Memoirs recalling the performance praised Henry Hill, one of the foremost viola players in Europe and brought attention to his Barak Norman viola which Berlioz himself praised as “incomparable”.

When it arrived by parcel-force in a battered case it turned out to be much larger than I would have possibly imagined at a staggering 18 3/4 inch body length (a professional viola is rarely more than 16 1/2 inches).

The overall size was consistent with the very rare Cremonese ‘tenore’ violas from the seventeenth century and earlier that survive, but just a little bigger.

This alone is enough to speculate that Berlioz was enraptured by an instrument that was physically different from the expected instruments of the symphony orchestra, enough in of itself to speculate on the nature of this enormous ‘tenor’ viola.

was a celebration of Nicolo Paganini who had commissioned it back in 1834 from Berlioz on his return to Paris from his final visit to London.

If Henry Hill chose the 18 3/4 inch Barak Norman to play under Berlioz’s baton, it was as a determined and uniquely Paganiniesque gesture that would have been as obvious to Berlioz as it was to the orchestra and audience.

Berlioz’s special praise of the concert and the instrument would seem to come full circle, and perhaps Henry Hill’s performance on what was essentially a ‘gran viola’ fulfilled the concept of in a manner that Urhan had been unable to achieve with his Paganini’s own Stradivari.

I can’t think of another time such an odd request has been asked of a soloist, and even asking someone to specifically play a Strad or something of that ilk doesn’t require asking them to revise their entire musical approach.His only substantial commentary about violin family instruments centred on his rage against the small violas common in French orchestras for leaving a vacuum in the harmonic richness of the symphony orchestra.Instead, his use of the term “incomparable” is parallel to his excitement for the musical possibilities offered by such innovations such as the Saxophone and Octobass that offered exciting new musical potential to the orchestra.Watch the video documentary here: Almost three years ago I received a message from a client who had an unusual instrument for sale and knew I would be interested.A ‘large’ inch viola made by the famous London maker, Barak Norman made around the period 1700-1710.

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