> BERLIOZ Requiem, Symphonie funebre, Chant [JL]: Classical CD Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Requiem (Grande Messe des morts)

Kenneth Riegel, tenor
The Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus/ Lorin Maazel
Recorded 1979
Chant pour Choeur

Hazel Holt, soprano
Sarah Walker, mezzo-soprano
Gillian Hull, contralto
Ryland Davies, tenor
Heinrich Schütz Choir and Chorale/Roger Norrington
Recorded 1969
Grande Symphonie funèbre et triomphale

Jeffrey Budin, trombone
Montréal Symphony Orchestra and Choir/Charles Dutoit
Recorded 1986
DECCA ELOQUENCE 467 479-2 [134:29]

 

The Grande Messe des morts, more commonly known as the Berlioz Requiem, is just that bit too long to fit onto one CD so a problem is posed for the marketeers: with what to fill up the rest of the space. In these reissues, Decca have done this with the unwieldy, ceremonial Symphonie funèbre, qualitatively one of the composer's lesser efforts, and three small-scale choral works. The result is that we have three kinds of work that were designed for three different acoustic contexts: the ritualistic, lofty space of Les Invalides in Paris, the open air places and boulevards of the French capital, and any smaller scale concert environment. This is significant because Berlioz was one of the most acutely acoustically sensitive of all composers.

When I first heard the Requiem, live in the huge Albert Hall in London, I vowed never to listen to a recorded performance. It wasn't just the quadraphonic effect of the four brass bands that could not be recreated in my living room, but also those restrained sounds that were designed to dissipate upwards into the vaults of the building to evoke the limitless time and space of the heavens.

I subsequently broke the vow (otherwise I would not be writing this review) but, for me, listening to a recording is simply a means of triggering a memory of what the work can be like in the right setting (the Albert Hall I am sure makes a good acoustic substitute for Les Invalides - the Royal Festival Hall is hopeless). For someone who has not heard it live and is out to buy a CD, then they will need a performance that conveys the majestic sweep of this choral masterpiece. So how does the powerful combination of Maazel and the Cleveland forces shape up to the task? Curate’s egg fashion, the answer must be: well in parts. The orchestral playing is good and the strings, which in spite of the mighty brass and choral forces are often prominent, sound particularly fine. Both chorus and orchestra produce both exciting and beautiful moments. They are responsive to Maazel in his demands which involve mannered turns of phrase, dynamic contrast within them and use of rubato that is sometimes subtle, at other times, less so. This brings me to the main problem which is Maazel himself. These characteristics of his performance inhibit the "majestic sweep", which is really what matters. For example, the brass bands open up with their devastating quadrophonics in the second section after the Dies Irae. This has followed the first section which consists of the Requiem and Kyrie and comes at least a quarter of an hour into the work. Berlioz builds up to this moment right from the hushed bars of the opening and the result is, or ought to be, one of the most effective long-term run-ups to a climactic entrance in all music. Maazel blows it through his indulgent phrasings on the way, losing the sense of seamless forward tread that is required. Again, after the brass have done their main work the chorus men enter over a thunderous drum roll, commenting on "the fearful trumpet sounds". Here Maazel, who has taken the brass fast (they nearly go out of sync at one point) slows things right down, thus at a stroke destroying the inexorable forward momentum from which this section derives its power.

There are other interpretative contradictions. In the Quaerens Me, the chorus sings "I groan……feeling guilt for my wrong-doing; Spare me Lord….My prayers are unworthy…have mercy, do not send me to the everlasting fire". Here they sing as if they are out on a jolly picnic which is hardly in the best traditions of indulgent, agonising Catholic guilt.

In the Sanctus, there are some lovely sounds and the soloist, Kenneth Riegel, is very pleasing (I have suffered some excruciatingly strangulated renderings of this high lying tenor part in my time), and the choir come into their own with the exultant Hosanna section. But Maazel simply cannot achieve the essential ethereal nature of the rest of it.

As I wrote this, thinking I might be being a little hard on Maazel, I took a break and read the paper. Lo and behold, there was a review of a concert at the London Barbican – Lorin Maazel conducting the LSO in Mahler’s Third Symphony. The reviewer, Tim Ashley (in the Guardian) says, "While Mahler is contemplating eternity…Maazel remains in a continuous present, and you lose sight of the symphony’s architectonics." He breaks the music into, "a sequence of sonic blocks – impressive in themselves, but lacking cumulative meaning". Ashley ends the review with, "Individual moments, however, don’t make a whole. Mahler’s Third has, I suspect, rarely sounded so gorgeous – or meant so little." Quite.

For a more reliable performance of the Requiem, then Colin Davis's first with the LSO, although over 30 years old, is still something of a bench mark. DG do a double disc bargain with a reissue of Charles Munch's fine interpretation from the same era, filled up with Harold in Italy conducted by Igor Markevitch. These men understand their Berlioz, as does Charles Dutoit whose recent Requiem recording with the Montréal SO is not only a sensitive performance but sounds the best of all.

It is Dutoit and Montréal who provide the main fill up in these Decca discs with the Symphonie funèbre, a piece designed for open air performance with, as far as Berlioz was concerned, as huge a collection of wind resources as possible. Since the chances of catching up with a live performance in suitable outdoor circumstances are near to nil, then this recording is a safe bet. It includes optional strings and last movement chorus and is part of a series of fine Berlioz recordings Dutoit has been making over several years.

Finally, the three motet-like works are convincingly performed in Roger Norrington's performances from 1969. These late works are labelled Chants pour Choeur in the booklet suggesting they comprise a single work of that name. This is not the case, but since there are no notes at all, you wouldn’t necessarily know that. Needless to say, there is no text either. Since the Requiem was written by Berlioz as more of a drama than religious rite, then, as with any drama, it helps to know the story.

John Leeman

 


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