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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Grande Messe des Morts, Op. 5 (1837)
Keith Ikaia-Purdy (tenor)
Chor der Sächsischen Staatsoper Dresden
Sinfoniechor Dresden/Hans-Dieter Pflüger
Singakademie Dresden/Hans-Christoph Rademann
Staatskapelle Dresden/Sir Colin Davis
rec. 14 February 1994, Kreuzkirche, Dresden, Germany. DDD
PROFIL PH07014 [88:38] [39:12 + 49:26]


The Berlioz Requiem has been lucky on record, but few conductors have penetrated the composer's psyche more profoundly than Sir Colin Davis. Indeed, his comprehensive Berlioz cycle for Philips in the 1960s and early 1970s is as much a landmark in the history of recorded music as Solti's Ring. The Requiem – taped in Westminster Cathedral in November 1969 – was very well recorded and hardly shows its age (Philips Originals 4757765). There are even whispers that PentaTone may remaster it as a surround-sound SACD. They have already issued a DSD version of the classic Davis/Concertgebouw Symphonie Fantastique.

In recent years Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra have revisited Berlioz for LSO Live. Generally these performances don't have quite the intensity and focus that characterise the Philips cycle but they are welcome nonetheless. So far there is no sign of the Requiem and Te Deum being recorded for LSO Live so until they appear we must make do with this Dresden memorial concert from February 1994.

In this recording – Volume 10 of Profil’s Edition Staatskapelle Dresden – Davis and the Dresden Staatskapelle, of which he is honorary conductor, continue a tradition begun by Rudolf Kempe in February 1951. It is a sombre occasion, marking the Allied destruction of Dresden (and the Kreuzkirche) on the night of 13 February 1945. Thousands perished in the firestorms and the booklet has several stark photographs of the devastation, both in Dresden and its twin city, Coventry. 

Given the emotional and symbolic weight of such an occasion one might expect an extraordinary rendition of an extraordinary work. On paper the signs are promising – a great orchestra, first-class choirs and a Berlioz conductor like no other – but does the performance live up to expectations? It certainly didn’t start off well; Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk was supposed to record both performances but their outdoor generator froze in the extreme cold of 13 February. Not a complete disaster, but it deprived the engineers of an ‘extra’ performance to fall back on at the editing stage.

From the outset it is clear this Dresden performance is cut from the same cloth as Philips’ 1969 one. Even the timings, not always a reliable indicator of such things, are strikingly similar; for instance the Requiem ­– Kyrie clocks in at 11:31 (11:33 on Philips). And even allowing for the imprecisions and uncertainties of a live performance it is clear that Davis still has the measure of this great score. In the opening the choruses are suitably hushed, the orchestra muted, that lovely rocking transition at 4:25 superbly managed (as indeed it is in the earlier recording).  Although this is a large work it is easy to forget there is much music of delicacy and poise as well. Just listen to the how the strings, horns, oboes and cor anglais introduce those opening figures, rising mysteriously as if from the void.

As a recording, the Dresden performance offers fewer sonic advantages than one might expect. There is the sense of a large acoustic, the choruses and orchestra in a reasonably well defined soundstage, but the Philips engineers really excelled themselves in 1969 with a recording of great precision, presence and weight. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Dies Irae – Tuba mirum. With its battery of extra percussion and four brass choirs ‘at the round earth’s imagined corners’ (as Donne would have it) this movement is a huge challenge to orchestra, singers and engineers.

This is one of those moments in Berlioz where one might be forgiven for trembling in anticipation of the mighty outburst to come. The cavernous bass figures and distant chorus set the stage for this great climax. The boys’ choirs (Wandsworth for Philips) are on a par, both well caught, and although Davis unerringly raises the tension here one might prefer the more menacing tread of his earlier account.

The Day of Judgement itself is spectacular in both recordings, the four brass choirs sounding the Last Trump with real weight and bite. This is Berlioz at his most theatrical, the augmented orchestra and choruses really letting rip. The Philips recording barely shows its age, although there is a noticeable shift of perspective in the loudest passages. The London forces yield absolutely nothing to their Dresden counterparts who, despite the advantage of a digital recording, actually don’t achieve quite the same frisson of excitement here. In fact, the latter is apt to sound congested and a little glassy under pressure.

One is left less shaken than one ought to be, although there is a wonderful sense of repose in the instrumental postlude that follows and at the beginning of the Quid sum miser. The Dresden tenors acquit themselves well here, achieving a rapt intensity that is most appealing. By contrast the great shouts in the Rex tremendae may not have quite the fervour of Arthur Oldham’s choirs, but the orchestra underpins the voices beautifully. Only in the more energetic fugal section does the momentum seem to falter; it is better articulated, more muscular on Philips. The aural picture also loses some focus in the tuttis, but then one has to make some allowances for a live recording.

The Quaerens me has some lovely ethereal a cappella singing. This is Berlioz at his most unexpected, combining fugal writing of some complexity with a vocal line of great beauty and inwardness. Both performances are splendid here.

The Dresden orchestra find plenty of passion in the surging Lacrymosa, their bows really biting into the strings, and the choruses sing with real conviction. Yes, the LSO may find more momentum in the music but otherwise honours are fairly evenly divided. Only in the climactic moments (8:20 onwards) could one wish for greater clarity and weight. To be honest, though, there is precious little to criticise here.

The austere, contrapuntal Offertorium is much more transparent, the incantations heard as if from afar, matched by orchestration of great simplicity. The recurring two-note motif dominates and at 9:01 we have another of those epiphanies as the music broadens and glows with inner light. As expected, Davis makes the most of those wonderful moments in the score; both the LSO and Dresden bands acquit themselves well here.

The chant-like Hostias finds the choruses hushed and beautifully blended, although those astonishing trombone pedals have marginally more presence in Davis’s earlier account, where they seem to launch out into the void, to great effect. Again the two performances aren’t that different, although in the soaring Sanctus tenor Ronald Dowd (Philips) sounds firmer and more secure than Keith Ikaia-Purdy, whose voice is inclined to spread under pressure. That said, the latter certainly sings with ardour, as do the choruses in the fugue that follows.

The quiet opening chords of the Agnus Dei never cease to thrill, floating gently as they do like wordless prayers into the enveloping silence. And the Dresdeners find a calm, a stillness, that is very moving indeed. At 5:50 that glorious rocking figure returns in the basses and at 9:44 there is another of those magical Berlioz transitions as the choruses seem to fill the air with light. The solemn angelus-like beat that accompanies the final ‘Amens’ must be among the most moving in all music – simple, dignified, heartfelt. In the context of Dresden these closing bars could hardly be more poignant.

A great musical tribute and more evidence, if it were needed, that Sir Colin Davis is sans pareil when it comes to this great work. His is not the only way, of course; there are fine readings from Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony (DSD-remastered RCA Living Stereo 82876663732), not to mention Roger Norrington’s more recent (and more controversial) Stuttgart recording for Hänssler (093131). The latter is an acquired taste and is not for the faint hearted. And even though it is a hybrid SACD the sonic advantages are not as obvious as one might expect.

If you are new to the Requiem the Philips recording (is still the most satisfying version around. And at mid-price, coupled with the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale, it is even more desirable. While this Dresden performance may not offer any new insights it is still a uniquely moving experience; that alone makes it deserving of  a place on your shelves.

Dan Morgan

Note: the sales links above are to a disc in the same series which seems to have the same catalogue number and performance as reviewed here but also includes a performance of Mozart's Symphony No. 40.




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