This thrilling new recording of the Berlioz Requiem is the product
of painstaking research as well as some indefatigable hard work
on the part of the conductor. Paul McCreesh, whom I suspect
few of us would have thought of as a natural Berliozian, has
been Artistic Director of Poland’s Wratislavia Cantans Festival
for a number of years. This recording draws on forces assembled
to perform the work in Wroclaw in the 2010 Festival. McCreesh
being McCreesh, he has his musicians playing almost entirely
on period instruments, including ophicleides and cornets à pistons,
but he has assembled an enormous cast of over 400 musicians
to create a mind-blowing impact. He has based his numbers and
approach on the circumstances of the work’s premiere, including
the importance of the scale of the building - vast forces in
a vast space - and the positioning of the players in relation
to the acoustical venue. So this is a performance that is “authentic”
to the core and the results are thrilling.
The first thing that strikes the listener is the sheer clarity
of the sound. This is partly thanks to the opening phrases being
played – mostly - on gut strings, but also due to the first
class technical engineering which opens things up brilliantly.
This works most spectacularly for the climax of the Tuba Mirum,
where even in the midst of the din there is not a hint of distortion
or fogginess. It’s also exceptional in the quieter moments,
such as the gentle responsive chords at the start of the Agnus
Dei or, perhaps best of all, in the Sanctus which has tenor
Robert Murray singing high up in the balcony of the church,
some distance from the rest of the players. The effect is stunning,
as is his singing in best French haute-contre style,
floating ethereally above the enormous forces below.
All of this would count for little were it not for the first
class musical values. The chorus sings with utter dedication,
buying into McCreesh’s vision with complete conviction and giving
it their all. The climaxes of the Tuba Mirum and Lachrymosa
are astounding, but just as wonderful are the softer moments
of reflection, such as the Quaerens Me and Agnus Dei,
and there is a richness to the Hostias that is especially
welcoming. The orchestral playing is also top notch, particularly
in the sinuous string playing of the Offertoire, and
the clipped precision of the attack from every section.
Holding it all together is the special vision of McCreesh himself.
In his booklet essays he acknowledges that the score holds problems
as well as delights, and he succeeds unassailably in the task
of making sense of this mammoth beast. There is a unity of vision
and clarity of purpose that I have never heard before in this
work. This, combined with the excellence of the playing and
engineering, must surely make this now a first choice, nudging
the recordings by Colin Davis and Eliahu Inbal off their pedestals.
Berlioz once said that if all his works but one were to be destroyed
then it would be the Requiem that he would save. Now, at last,
I can start to see why.
Incidentally, the good news for us all is that this is planned
as the first in a series of oratorio recordings from Wroclaw;
Elijah is next in line. The notes and packaging for this set
are excellent, including full texts and translations and insightful
essays and an interview with McCreesh about his interpretation.
review (previous Recording of the Month) by John Quinn