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CD: Crotchet


Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Requiem: Grande Messe de Morts, Op. 5 (1837) [91:19]
Ronald Dowd (tenor)
Wandsworth School Boys’ Choir/Russell Burgess
London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Sir Colin Davis
rec. November 1969, Westminster Cathedral, UK.
PENTATONE CLASSICS PTC5186 191 [40:57 + 50:22]
Experience Classicsonline

When Dan Morgan reviewed the Profil recording of the Berlioz Requiem with Davis and the Dresden Staatskapelle last year, he alluded to PentaTone’s plans to remaster the famous Davis/LSO version as a surround-sound SACD.  Well, here it is and sounding terrific. This version of the Requiem and Charles Munch’s Boston Symphony recording for RCA have long been held as the benchmarks for this gigantic work.  Now, how does it compete with some of the more recent versions purely as recorded sound?  As an interpretation, it still stands at or near the top of the heap.
I remember when Philips first issued this on CD and I bought a copy.  I was so disappointed with the sound that I soon discarded it.   I haven’t heard the later pressings, but I can say that PentaTone has done an outstanding job in restoring this to its original glory, even in two channels.   The recording was originally quadraphonic.  Although I do not have a system that is configured for SACD, I listened to this on a friend’s system to get full advantage of the rear channels.  I compared this version with three others, particularly in the Tuba mirum and Sanctus movements:
•  Munch/BSO (RCA 82876 663732)
•  Spano/Atlanta Symphony (Telarc CD60627)
•  Norrington/Stuttgart Radio Orchestra (Hänssler CD93.191).
Each of these recordings has something to offer the listener that the other does not, and it was a most enlightening exercise.  At the end of the day, I would be hard pressed to recommend one over the other depending on one’s expectations of the work.  If the highlight of the work for you is the tenor solo in the Sanctus, then Munch’s Leopold Simoneau is head and shoulders above the others.  If, on the other hand, the antiphonal brass in the Tuba mirum is your primary concern, then Spano’s Telarc recording is unbeatable — purely as sound.  Davis’s brass here were powerful, but more spread out and less directional than Spano’s.   If you find that many interpretations of the work are Romantically overblown, including Davis’s, and want to try something completely different, then Norrington’s Stuttgart recording may just be your cup of tea.  With Davis there is a certain rightness of the Berlioz idiom that is hard to define.  A case in point is the Lacrimosa, where the swinging rhythm, like some gigantic bell, seems to perfectly capture the mood of the piece.  Here Norrington sounds hurried and misses that feeling altogether.  Yet, Norrington’s version creates a better sense of space and is recorded in an acoustic that sounds more cathedral-like than Davis’, even though it was recorded in a concert hall.  It takes some time getting used to his vibrato-less strings at first, but they fit well in with the purity of his voices.  The result of this pristine account is to take the work back into the Renaissance and earlier, and it sheds a whole new light on the piece.  His flutes with trombone underpinning in the Hostias are perfectly articulated and create an atmosphere of desolation.  Compared to Norrington, Davis sounds very human, with the chorus not ideally blended.  Still, there’s no gainsaying the commitment the orchestra and chorus are giving here.  It is a powerful experience, and not just because it is recorded more closely than Norrington.
Next to Davis, Spano sounds sleek and smooth.  There is not a hair out of place in either the orchestra or the chorus, but some of the blood and thunder of the work is drained out in the process.  Yet, when that brass comes in from the rear, it is pretty spectacular.  His soloist, Frank Lopardo, while perfectly satisfactory, in no way eclipses Simoneau for Munch.  As far as the tenor is concerned, Ronald Dowd for Davis does a heroic job, but rather overdoes his solo.   He not only shows some strain when he increases his volume, but also sounds affected in his pronunciation of “Gloria.”  On the other hand, Toby Spence for Norrington is not much more than a far-off presence in his solo and his words are not clear.  Again, Simoneau for Munch knows how the solo should go.  He sings it simply, beautifully and without strain, even though he is recorded closer than the others.  Munch, like Davis, is a Berliozian of the first order, but his recording — especially the strings — is beginning to show its age.
The bottom line is that no single recording of this great Requiem will do justice to all of its aspects, but the Davis has stood the test of time and is sounding now better than ever.  PentaTone should be congratulated for bringing it to new life.  Had they also included Davis’ sterling account of the Te Deum — also a work of gigantic proportions, though not the length of the Requiem — this would indeed have been a real bargain (it is full price for two discs, making it an expensive prospect).  In its most recent reissue, Philips included it with the Requiem on a two-CD set.  There would have been room.  Another sore point with PentaTone is their rather skimpy notes in the accompanying booklet on the work itself, especially compared with the notes that originally accompanied the Philips discs.  Nor is a text of the Requiem included here. This, however, should not deter prospective buyers from purchasing this classic account of one of the glories of the Davis Berlioz discography if you want the work on SACD. 
Leslie Wright


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