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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Requiem (Grande Messe des Morts) Op.5 (1837)
Jean Giraudeau (tenor)
Choeurs de la Radiodiffusion Française
Orchestre du Théâtre National de l'Opéra de Paris/Hermann Scherchen
Recorded in the L'Église Saint-Louis des Invalides, April 1958
TAHRA WEST 3001-3002 [44.54 + 53.52]
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I have a feeling that Scherchen’s 1958 Requiem may have been misjudged. Or, to put it another way, the qualities that made it seem so unsympathetic to some can, in a good transfer, give it a richer sense of personality and occasion, a deeper transaction with Berlioz’s blazing genius. That said it will still strike many as a lost cause. Tempi are often at the heart of the controversy with Scherchen and that’s as true of his Berlioz as much as it is of.his Bach Orchestral Suites – here the performance of the Requiem spills out onto two discs.

Certainly it needs to be taken on highly personalised terms. The latest incarnation by Tahra has improved on the old Vox/Vega/Westminster pressings by virtue of greater clarity and immediacy; the recording can still be distant and somewhat opaque in places – Les Invalides was not an easy space in which to record – but it’s been somewhat ameliorated here, which is very much to the benefit of the performance. Even the occasionally problematic stereo balances can be swept up in the grandeur of the interpretation.

Weighty, serious and with noble sonorousness, Scherchen’s Berlioz is not for those to whom Fournet, Munch, Beecham and Davis are lodestars in this work. The opening movement actually put me in mind of the elderly Celibidache’s Bach but in the Dies Irae we get some shuddering strings, well controlled and projected lower men’s voices, and a genuine sense of Scherchen’s absolute commitment to the work. I can’t help but feel that the static Quid sum miser is part of his greater architectural schema, though it’s not one to which I happen to be especially sympathetic. No one wants to judge performances by the stopwatch but there was seemingly a French consensus between such as Fournet, whose first ever recording of the work in Wartime I reviewed (on Malibran) and Munch (Boston 1959) to take the Rex tremendae at 5.40 – and not Scherchen’s bar-distending 6.58.

What Scherchen does so well is cumulative power and grandeur and a palpable sense of spiritual commitment, though it’s always one that equates slowness of tempo with gravity of feeling. The gravely etched bass line is part of a marmoreal approach to the Offertorium that lasts all of 11.13 (compare Fournet and Munch who agree on a mean of 6.23, a truly exceptional difference). But Scherchen does have Jean Giraudeau in the Sanctus and his voice is caressing, fragile, boyish and otherworldly in its employment of a typically French head voice. I admit to being very partial to him and his raptness has a beauty all its own. The final Agnus Dei needless to say lasts a Brucknerian 15.33 – Fournet and Munch are in absolute tempo agreement as to 11.55 – but Scherchen’s apartness from a perceived French tradition in this work brings other gravities and perceptions.

The leading contenders for performances of around that time (and now) would include the ones already mentioned – I strongly recommend the Fournet with Georges Jouatte despite the problematic Parisian acoustic, though the later Munch with Leopold Simoneau is a central recommendation – and the live Beecham from 1959 with Richard Lewis now on BBC Legends, which is superb.

Jonathan Woolf



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