Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Grande Messe des Morts (1837) [82:36]
Paul Groves (tenor)
EuropaChorAkademie/Joshard Daus
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden Baden und Freiburg/Sylvain Cambreling
rec. Konzerthaus, Freiburg und Alte Oper, Frankfurt, March-April 2004. DDD
GLOR CLASSICS GC08034 [47:34 + 35:02]

Such is the colossal stature of Berlioz’s Grande Messe de Morts (or Requiem, to give it its shorthand title), with its huge orchestral and choral forces, that live performances and recordings are still relatively rare. It is good news, therefore, to find a new CD set of the work on the market. And this one is definitely worth investigating.

Conductor Sylvain Cambreling and chorus master Joshard Daus exert a secure control over the massed forces of the SWR Symphony Orchestra and EuropaChorAkademie - a band of professional young singers from across Europe. Cambreling pulls out all the stops during the fortissimo-plus passages, evoking some of the astonishment that struck the first Parisian audience at Les Invalides in 1837. The massed brass bands and timpani and cymbal crashes during the Tuba mirum (CD 1, track 3), for example, don’t disappoint, and the uneasy conclusion to the Requiem in the final Agnus Dei (CD 2, track 4) rightly leaves the listener with a sense of unresolved foreboding.

But it is through its uncovering of the subtleties and oddities of Berlioz’s score that this recording really succeeds. Listen, for example, to the lilting upper strings wrapping around the impassioned chorus during the Rex tremendae (CD 1, track 5) and you are immediately taken to the sunnier climes of Roméo et Juliette. Or try the unaccompanied asceticism of the Quaerens me (CD 1, track 6), and you are reminded of the simple, devotional world of L’Enfance du Christ.

Where Cambreling and Daus occasionally slip is in their failure to take sufficient risks. In parts, the EuropaChorAkademie is too well-disciplined and polite. The opening Requiem and Kyrie (CD 1, track 1), for example, should sound pained and explosive, as if the dead themselves are cracking open the earth. Equally, tenor Paul Groves gives too safe a reading of the beautiful Sanctus (CD 2, track 3). This simple, heartfelt yearning is set against a restrained orchestra and chorus, and ends with dazzling cymbal strokes. But Groves sounds too faint, even timid, and the orchestral and choral support seems like empty gesturing.

But minor disappointments aside, this is a recording of great emotional power and musical insight. Certainly one of the best versions of the Requiem around.

John-Pierre Joyce

see also review by Dan Morgan