RECORD OF THE MONTH
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Grande Messe des Morts (1837) [88:42]
Robert Murray (tenor)
Gabrieli Players and Consort
Chetham’s School of Music Symphonic Brass Ensemble
Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/Paul McCreesh
rec. Mary Magdalene Church, Wroclaw, 13-15 September 2010
Latin text and English and Polish translations included
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD280 [48:25 + 40:17]
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.