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
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.