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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Requiem - Grande Messe des Morts, Op. 5 (1867) [77.01]
Frank Lopardo, tenor
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Robert Spano
Recorded in Woodruff Symphony Hall, Atlanta, Georgia, USA, 9 November 2003
Notes in English with text in Latin and translation.
DSD 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround sound. 2.0 stereo cd tracks.
Hybrid SACD also playable on CD players.

TELARC SACD 60627 [77.01]

Comparison Recordings

Colin Davis, Ronald Dowd, LSO and Chorus. (original 1970 release) [ADD] Philips 416 283-2
Colin Davis, Ronald Dowd, LSO and Chorus. (remastered 2001 at 96kHz) [ADD] Philips 464 689-2
Eliahu Inbal, Keith Lewis, Frankfurt RSO, ORF and NDR Choirs, Brilliant Classics 99999
James Levine, Luciano Pavarotti, BPO, Senff Chorus DG 429 724-2
Robert Shaw, John Aler, Atlanta SO and Chorus Telarc 80109-2

This is the first high resolution surround sound recording of the Berlioz Requiem and it is a marvellous achievement. On the SACD surround tracks during the "Requiem" and "Lachrymosa" movements the trumpets are placed firmly in the rear of the hall. The cavernous acoustic is realistically depicted, giving a thrilling sense of place and producing a grand arena of swirling sound. The CD tracks on this hybrid CD preserve much of grandeur — and, when played through a surround sound decoder, directionality — of the SACD tracks. However, even though all of these two channel comparison recordings sound very good in fake surround sound, there is no comparison with the trumpets REALLY being in the back of the auditorium!

A previous very competent recording of this work by most of these same forces with conductor the Rev. Robert Shaw (If Sir Colin is going to get his title, Rev. Robert should also), on the Telarc label, also featured brilliant (two channel) sound, and a particularly exciting and aggressive timpani section. However it displayed a similar relative lack of commitment on the part of the chorus and conductor. Americans living in the Bible Belt Protestant Christian culture apparently just don’t really believe that anything bad could ever happen to them and that comes across in their admittedly very skilled performance of this music. Robert Spano has evidently drilled the chorus in dramatic phrasing, so, while superficially there is a little more drama here than with Shaw, the chorus is still at heart relatively unconcerned with death or judgement.

With each subsequent recording we are left ever more in awe of the magnificent 1970 achievement of Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Even though that recording is now definitely showing its age sonically it remains the most effective, most exciting, most committed version I’ve ever heard. Whatever Davis was able to do in 1970 to terrify his chorus half to death, the result was worth it. Or, it may be that to your taste the Davis recording is raw, over-articulated and irreverent.

James Levine’s stunning recordings of the Brahms’ Requiem and of the Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms** with the CSO and Hillis choirs should have prepared me for the discovery that his recording of the Berlioz Requiem is also outstanding. His chorus achieves only slightly less intensity than Davis’s. The offstage bands sound a little under-rehearsed, surprising for the BPO. Pavarotti sings beautifully; if one has any doubts about the Great Wailer and Berlioz, one need only note in the program booklet a close-up photograph of Pavarotti and Levine meeting face to face as equals to realise that this recording would be a flawless collaboration between two men who are at the very top of their respective fields. The digital recording brilliantly reproduces the massed brass and percussion forces and the result is the closest challenge to Davis, both being ahead of the Spano version. The Inbal recording on Brilliant Classics with tenor Keith Lewis also compares favourably in this company.

On the other hand, some may prefer this Spano version over all others because of its smoothness and sense of reverent restraint. Spano and his forces come thrillingly to life in the "Requiem," "Lachrymosa," and "Rex Tremendae" sections, and Shaw and his chorus gave us a hauntingly beautiful "Recordare." It must be said that all of these recordings are very, very fine, and the differences I have pointed out are well within the limits of matters of taste. You may very well rate these recordings differently than I have, and can be confident that whichever one(s) you choose you will have a splendid musical experience.

The very first Telarc release was a direct-to-disk LP recording run through a stay-level compressor circuit; the label’s technical standards have at least occasionally since that time shown a lack of commitment to realistic dynamic range, and that is a little bit in evidence here. Things get loud and soft now and then, but the impact is only moderate.* And if the back-of-the-hall trumpets are effective in the movements with massed forces, putting the tenor soloist back there has the poor man yelling ineffectively into an acoustical sponge trying desperately to make himself heard. It must be said that Shaw’s tenor, John Aler, gives us one of the finest performances this part has ever received, comparable to Pavarotti. If you’ll buy a Berlioz Requiem just for the tenor, you already have one of those.

Hi-fi surround-sound SACD buffs will want this disk, but if you have the earlier Davis recording — particularly the 2001 high resolution re-mastering — you may prefer to keep enjoying the Davis version and wait for something truly better. It may be a long time.

*I would like to hear this same recording issued on a DVD-Audio.

**Available only on a special CSO orchestral anthology release.

Paul Shoemaker

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