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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

 

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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Grande Messe des Morts (Requiem) op. 5 (1837) [102:00]
Keith Lewis (tenor)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Chorus/Herwig Saffert
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
Rec.: live, Regensburg Cathedral, Germany, 1989
Directed for TV by Klaus Lindemann
Produced in association with Bavarian Radio and Digital Classics Distribution
ARTHAUS MUSIK 102 027 [102:00]

I could save you time and patience dear reader and say simply at the outset: beg, steal or borrow the pennies necessary to rush out and buy this issue without delay. Anyone remotely committed to Berlioz surely loves this work, and equally will respond to this masterly interpretation.

Moreover the soloist, choir and orchestra are at their considerable best, whilst the sound and picture quality, although not exhibiting the very latest in range and sharpness, is generally admirable. The direction is unobtrusive and captures most of the scale, shape and incident of the performance.

Like several of Berlioz’s major compositions the Requiem has a somewhat tortuous history. France at the time wanted choral music as a public ceremonial; a chance to "gather the nation", as it were, in a communal exhibition of national self-esteem and well-being. Indeed this was a continuation of a tradition, exemplified by composers such as Gossec and Méhul, of grand choral/orchestral scores designed for public display and ceremonial.

Berlioz revealed that he had: "long coveted (the text of) the requiem; at last it was mine and I fell upon it in a sort of fury. My brain seemed ready to burst under the pressure of creative ferment."

The opportunity had been provided by a government commission in April 1837. Unfortunately the power behind the decision, Minister of the Interior Gasparin, was ousted in an autumn reshuffle, and the Requiem’s future looked in doubt. However news came through in October of that year of the death of one General Damremont, who had perished during an assault on the town of Constantine as part of the colonial campaign in Algeria. The death of a prominent soldier gave new impetus for public ceremonial, and so the decision was given for the Grande Messe des Morts to be aired.

In his studies with Le Suer - another Frenchman who had also taken the "king’s shilling" by producing works for open-air exposition - Berlioz discussed at length the fitness of music for its intended performance space. He frequently felt that music was played in venues too large for it to make its proper effect.

Thus given the opportunity to write a work for a cathedral or similar venue Berlioz’s scoring expanded to fit the purpose. The Requiem therefore includes a string ensemble of 108, a tenor soloist, a choir of at least three to four hundred (more if circumstances permit), twelve horns (placed in the main orchestra), four brass sections (trumpets, trombones, tubas, placed separately from the orchestra), sixteen timpani (eight players), four tam-tams and ten sets of cymbals.

Some have pointed to these enormous resources and dismissed the work as just a gigantic orgy of deafening sound. This utterly misses the point. Yes the composer seizes the dramatic elements in the text and uses the considerable forces to underline several key points – the day of judgement after all, especially given the socio-political context of the time, would hardly be appropriately rendered with a finger cymbal and a string quartet!

However it is vital to realise that the enormous reach of the Requiem and the ability of the score to resonate through a vast space is achieved not, in large part, by use of massive waves of sound, but by great restraint, delicate passage-work and a clarity, even a certain "hollowness", to the textures. There is interest and beauty in the inner lines, but it is not the richness of a Brahms or a Bruch; instead there is a spareness and a gentle luminosity redolent of the light of Berlioz’s beloved ancient Greece.

Berlioz, we must recall, did not have a standard musical upbringing. He pointedly bemoaned in his memoirs his household’s lack of that essential tool for a composer, a piano. Instead for many boyhood years his experience of musical performance revolved around the church choir, and the wind band of Côte St André.

The latter I am convinced had a profound and lasting effect upon his "sound", a factor that Davis appreciates as almost no other. The clarity, the sinuous interweaving lines, the decay of phrases in the Requiem are reproduced in a masterly fashion, which very few have equalled. There is an hypnotic beauty about much of the music, and this performance, which is totally captivating.

I only have a couple of tiny quibbles. Regensburg Cathedral has a more than adequate space and ambience, but seemingly not sufficient to allow the four brass sections to be placed at the points of the compass. True this has minimal effect on stereophonic sound, but it could have added something to the vision. Anyone who has experienced the Requiem thus will never have forgotten the impact.

Also Davis’s performance isn’t a carbon copy of his 1969 Philips audio set (416 283-2) or his performance recently at the RAH Proms. The Rex Tremendae is taken a little slower and hasn’t quite persuaded me ... at least not yet. Much ... much more though works sublimely well, and I am not embarrassed to report that there were more than a few tears during the Quarens Me ... music of the spheres if ever there was.

Enough – those who dismiss this masterwork as a grandiloquent, self promotional/public relations exercise, will not be convinced even if a free twenty pound note were miraculously attached to this review.

Meanwhile, to the Berlioz lover – don’t hesitate.

To those of you who do not know the score – what a marvel awaits you. Oh to re-kindle that first experience of Robert Tear, the Brighton Festival and London Symphony Choruses, and London Symphony Orchestra, directed by the then Colin Davis, experienced in the dome of St Paul’s at the 1976 City of London Festival!

No, you can’t go back ... but then again ... you can get pretty close ...

Ian Bailey

 

 



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