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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Grande Messe des Morts, Op. 5 (1837)
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
[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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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