Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

Nimbus on-line

Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Te Deum Op. 22 (1837) [49.26]
Spoken Commentary by Dennis Keene [22.55]
John Aler - Tenor
Mark Kruczek - Organ
Young Singers of Pennsylvania
Voices of Ascension Chorus and Orchestra/Dennis Keene
Rec. live 9 July 1996, The Cathedral of St John The Divine, New York, USA
DELOS 3200 [62.36]


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Such a monumental piece is the Berlioz Te Deum that one listens to a CD of it almost believing that it is impossible for any recording to do justice to a work that is so inimically linked to space and setting. Berlioz himself imagined this work to be the very sound of heaven; the sound of the Angelic Host forever proclaiming ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God of Hosts’. He could well be right, and this performance certainly aims for something of that sense of the truly awesome. This was very much an ‘occasional’ performance, the occasion in question being the centennial celebrations of the American Guild of Organists. As such, there is a risk that the recording could have real appeal only to a listener with some connection to that body. To some extent this is true, and to some extent there are factors in the performance that mitigate against such an argument. The ‘awesome’ effect mentioned above comes not only from the size of the forces. The principal chorus of 140 singers is impressive enough as it is, but even more so in that this is a completely professional chorus – presumably making use of just about every professional singer that New York had to offer. The result is undeniably stunning singing (Sample 1). The playing of the equally vast orchestra is excellent, but somewhat colourless in comparison to the chorus. This writer must admit to a certain ignorance as to the nature or permanence of the Voices of Ascension Orchestra. They are undeniably fine, but that extra magic that could have been possible with one of the great American orchestras, especially as regards American brass playing, is something that is tangibly lacking.

The same must not be said of the organ. Mark Kruczek has at his command one of the truly magnificent American organs. This writer is not generally a fan of American organ sound, finding it tends to the brash rather than the grand. However, the instrument in St John The Divine is modelled much more on French classical organs of the 19th century and the thick reeds and wonderfully colourful chorus stops have the sort of pungency that Berlioz requires. The first mighty chords are a clear demonstration that the orchestra, for all its numbers, has to work to hold its own in sheer grandeur of sound (Sample 2). The organ, of course, is also an integral part of the soundscape within the building. It is not often in a CD booklet that one finds a plan of the concert venue, but so it is here. The Cathedral of St John The Divine is, of course, the largest Gothic structure in the world – or it certainly will be if it ever gets finished. The disc makes quite a lot of the fact that this was a concert in this most stupendous of American churches, and indeed, it is on a scale fitting for Berlioz’s huge music. The thing that comes across as odd is that the mighty acoustic is not better captured on the recording. Clearly, recording in such a vast space is difficult, and the producers have aimed for clarity with fairly close mic placing. The result however, is that the venue that is being pushed as important, does not come across in the recorded sound. The feeling of awesome space around the sound is lacking and this is a pity, especially as pats of the orchestra (especially the winds) and the tenor soloist still sound rather distant (Sample 3).

Overall, this is an enjoyable performance, but at 49 minutes the disc is definitely on the short side of good value. The remainder is taken up by a spoken commentary on the Te Deum, delivered by the conductor, Dennis Keene. The potential purchaser would need to think very carefully about whether this represents a worthwhile coupling that would bear repeated listening. This writer does not think that it does. Mr Keene has researched the background of the work thoroughly, and some of his comments are interesting, but it all smacks of Open University stage one lectures on the radio. Once you have heard what Mr Keene has to say, you’ve heard it. Furthermore, if we are to consider in any detail what he actually does say, he has some very peculiar views on what the Te Deum as a text is all about. Much of his understanding of the text, which presumably colours his interpretation of the music, sees the Te Deum as a plea for deliverance from eternal damnation. It seems a very Bible-Belt-American-Evangelical interpretation. In discussing the final movement, he makes great play of his view of it as a titanic battle between forces of damnation and redemption, quoting "Non confundar – salvum fac" which he translates in rather ugly manner as "Don’t let us be confounded – save us!" The actual text places these two phrases in completely different contexts, not juxtaposed in this manner at all. The last line of the Te Deum is "In te, Domine, speravi; non confundar in aeternum"[my italics] (In thee, O Lord, have I trusted; let me never be confounded.) "Salvum fac" comes several verses earlier as "Salvum fac populum tuum Domine; et benedic hereditati tuae" (O Lord, save Thy people; and bless Thine inheritance.") There is, in fact, nothing about salvation from damnation in the text, and although Berlioz does change the order of some of the text, having both these phrases in the last movement, they remain in their separate verse. The Te Deum is entirely a hymn of praise, as seen by Berlioz’s addition to the last movement of "Per singulos dies benedicimus…" (Day by day we magnify Thee; and we worship Thy name, ever world without end). That does not strike this listener as very damnatory and it seems far more logical to view Berlioz’s mighty ending as ecstatic praise rather than some depiction of Old Testament heavenly warfare.

One would naturally enough seek enlightenment in the booklet essay, but the disc comes with only a slim insert with text, recording details, ground plan of the cathedral and an invitation to the purchaser to send a further US$3.00 to an address in Hollywood if they want the 20-page booklet. A good performance notwithstanding, overall it becomes hard to recommend this as a worthwhile package for purchase.

Peter Wells

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