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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Grande Messe des Morts, Op. 5 (1837)
Paul Groves (tenor)
EuropaChorAkademie/Joshard Daus
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg/Sylvain Cambreling
rec. 31 March 2004 (Konzerthaus Freiburg), 2 April 2004 (Alte Oper, Frankfurt am Main)
Bonus DVD: Europa Kantate; Musik verbindet (profile of the EuropaChorAkademie); Making of L’enfance du Christ; trailer for the Verdi Requiem (conducted by Plácido Domingo); Glor catalogue.
DVD: Region 2; 16:9; PCM stereo; no subtitles (German and English commentaries only)
GLOR CLASSICS GC08034 [47:34 + 35:02] 
Experience Classicsonline

The Berlioz Requiem is God’s gift to hi-fi freaks and headbangers. Written for huge orchestra, choruses, tenor, augmented percussion and four brass choirs this monster of a piece will give your system a real workout. The spatial effects are particularly well suited to multi-channel set-ups, which may explain why there are no less than seven SACD versions of the Requiem in the current catalogue.
 
But, as with Richard Strauss, there is considerably more to Hector Berlioz than these big works might suggest. The Requiem is no exception, blessed as it is with some of the composer’s most original – and profound – writing. It’s certainly been more successful on record than its companion, the Te Deum, beginning with Beecham’s famous mono recording (BBC Legends 4011), The Maurice Abravanel, Charles Munch and Sir Colin Davis sets have all been re-mastered for SACD, the latter enthusiastically welcomed by Leslie Wright (see review).  I was also much impressed by Davis’s more recent live account from Dresden (see review).
 
As far as ‘native’ SACD versions are concerned Sir Roger Norrington (Hänssler 93131), Robert Spano (Telarc 60627) and Sylvain Cambreling have the field to themselves. Norrington is very much an acquired taste in this repertoire and I’m not at all convinced by the sonics either. Spano has the benefit of superb engineering, and as Telarc offer separate SACD and CD versions of the work it fits neatly on one disc. Of the re-mastered sets Munch’s suffers from wiry treble and shows signs of strain in the big climaxes. And although it’s reasonably well sung and played it strikes me as a rather lightweight performance.
 
Which leaves Davis’s 40-year-old recording; it’s the most satisfying all-rounder and the one that others must challenge, let alone equal. In Davis’s hands the Kyrie is beautifully phrased, the LSO playing with real passion and commitment. Even allowing for its vintage the sound is rich and sonorous, the acoustic of Westminster Cathedral adding a welcome sense of space and spectacle to the proceedings. By contrast Cambreling’s Kyrie seems curiously mannered, with somewhat exaggerated dynamics and little sense of a large acoustic.
 
According to the CD booklet Cambreling’s performance was cobbled together from two performances in two completely different venues, which must have created a few headaches for the engineers. As for a sense of continuity, the Requiem is conceived as a mighty musical and dramatic arch, something that Davis conveys very well indeed. But, more than that, Davis is most attuned to Berlioz’s innate theatricality, so the build-up to the Dies irae and Tuba mirum is convincingly paced and thrillingly realised. There is absolutely no sense of cumulative tension in Cambreling’s account, and although he has the more modern recording this is one Day of Judgement that won’t wake the dead.
.
Despite its age – which it disguises rather well – Davis’s recording shows little sign of stress in these big moments, although at times there are shifts of aural perspective. This hardly matters when the conductor digs deep and finds so much detail and nuance in the score. By comparison Cambreling seems positively diffident, rarely uncovering those elusive rhythms and colours. Only in the Rex tremendae is there a hint of passion and bite, but again Davis alone sustains the essential thrust and vigour of this music, helped by full-blooded contributions from singers and players alike.
 
And that’s what really sets these two performances apart. Cambreling sounds bland and, like Norrington, smoothes over the work’s sometimes extreme contrasts. Davis has fire in his belly, and it shows in every bar. Indeed, at a Proms performance of the Requiem a few years back the now elderly conductor was so animated during the Tuba mirum that he parted company with his glasses. Somehow I can’t imagine the same happening to Cambreling; for instance, he doesn’t get nearly as much ‘swing’ from the Lacrymosa as Davis does. Sonically the old Philips recording is much more detailed and wide-ranging too – those timp rolls are especially effective – which goes to show that there’s simply no substitute for good engineering.
 
By the time I reached the end of the Lacrymosa – and the first disc – I was feeling distinctly underwhelmed. Indeed, I couldn’t summon up a single positive response to the performance thus far. No, Davis was never in danger of losing his crown to this pale pretender, as Cambreling’s bloodless Offertorium so amply demonstrates. Part of the problem with this performance is its scale – singers and players sound too thin and too stretched, with none of the heft this work so clearly deserves. On top of that Cambreling micro-manages the music too much, lingering and prodding to the detriment of momentum and line. As always Davis takes the long view, sounding utterly natural and spontaneous throughout.
 
As for Cambreling’s young singers they acquit themselves well in the Hostias, but the conductor’s fastidious reading makes the music seem oddly disjointed. Indeed, this is a prime example of where a sense of line and overall structure really matters; even Davis’s tenor, Ronald Dowd, launches his soaring Sanctus with a marvellous feeling for the part’s long, unfurling phrases. Paul Groves, for Cambreling, is placed well back and, in fairness, this is probably more like one would hear it in the concert hall. That said, Dowd is the most ardent and moving soloist of all.
 
Stasis can so easily set in during the latter half of the Sanctus and that’s also where Davis’s more purposeful approach pays dividends. Paradoxical as it may seem, Cambreling’s Sanctus sounds too ‘churchy’ for my tastes, making Berlioz sound more like watered-down Gounod than the forward-looking composer he undoubtedly was. Berlioz seldom played it safe, and despite some roughness and imprecision Davis’s risk-taking approach is far preferable to Cambreling’s anodyne one.
 
And, oh, how prosaic this Agnus Dei sounds, even with heartfelt singing from the EuropaChorAkademie. As for the sombre brass that launch out into the void like departing souls the SWR players simply can’t match their British counterparts for sheer frisson. This is surely one of the most deeply affecting passages in all Berlioz and, as always, Davis judges the music’s rise and fall to perfection. Cambreling’s habit of parenthesising – first a distraction and then an irritation – simply impedes the music’s gradual descent towards those final ‘Amens’. Once again Davis seems most attuned to the music’s natural ebb and flow, gently lifting and propelling his beautifully blended singers and players towards the work’s quiet, but radiant, close.
 
Not since Norrington’s idiosyncratic recording of the Requiem have I felt so deflated by this astounding work. Normally one might expect to feel either shaken or deeply moved – possibly both – but not indifferent. Sadly Cambreling’s performance falls into this latter category; it’s just too safe and uninspiring to make a lasting impression. If anything this newcomer confirms the enduring virtues of Davis’s set; the latter may be challenged, even equalled, but it’s unlikely to be surpassed.
 
But wait, there’s more. The double gatefold CD ‘box’ – already looking a bit battered – contains a bonus DVD as well. This includes: clips from other Glor audio releases; a film about the creation of a European cantata; a profile of the EuropaChorAkademie entitled Musik verbindet; a ‘Making of...’ documentary on Cambreling’s L’enfance du Christ; and the trailer for a DVD of Plácido Domingo conducting Verdi’s Requiem.
 
The laudable theme throughout is young musicians and the unifying power of great music. The cantata piece is mildly interesting, and with 26 countries contributing this makes the Tower of Babel look like a low-rise. But in Musik verbindet chorus master Joshard Daus’s EuropaChorAkademie looks – and sounds – like a splendid group of singers. What a pity they aren’t heard to best advantage in the Berlioz Requiem.
 
The ‘Making of...’ documentary isn’t especially insightful, although there is some lovely singing from the choir. Regrettably the final bars of L’enfance – Berlioz at his most tender – were spoilt by a skipping disc.
 
It’s good to see Domingo on the podium, although I wasn’t too impressed with his conducting of the Zeffirelli Traviata a few years back. Here the EuropaChorAkadmie are joined by the Youth Orchestra of America who, if the short excerpts are anything to go by, produce a thrilling performance of this other great Requiem. Definitely one to watch out for.
 
Dan Morgan
 

 


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