This set represents the first fruits on disc of Paul McCreesh’s
association with the Wratislavia Cantans Festival in Wrocław,
Poland. The festival was established in 1966 and McCreesh became
its artistic Director in 2006. This new recording is also the
first on his new label, Winged Lion, one so new that its website
is not even up and running yet. The new label will work in partnership
with Signum Classics. This will be the future source of new
recordings from the Gabrieli Consort and this recording of the
Grande Messe des Morts is planned as the first of a series
of oratorios from Wrocław.
Berlioz calls for vast forces to perform his Grande Messe
des Morts - which, hereafter, I will refer to as the Requiem
for convenience - and at the first performance the choir numbered
210 singers and 190 instrumentalists. This recording all but
replicates those forces. Paul McCreesh has assembled an Anglo-Polish
ensemble, drawn from the bodies listed above, which performs
under the title Ensemble Wrocław. The combined choir comprises
sixty tenors and sixty-two basses and seventy-five women - for
much of the time the altos do not have a separate part. This
is only very slightly less than the forces specified by the
composer. The orchestra is on a comparable scale. As requested
by the composer, there are fifty violins. The rest of the string
choir - eighteen violas, nineteen cellos and eighteen basses
- virtually replicates Berlioz’s requirements. The woodwind
consists of four flutes, two each of oboes and cors anglais,
four clarinets, eight bassoons, twelve horns and fourteen percussionists.
Oh, and I nearly forgot, there are also the four brass ensembles,
comprising a ‘mere’ thirty-eight musicians!
I’ve given a list of the forces because it shows the very
considerable trouble to which McCreesh has gone in order to
give listeners an authentic experience of this magnificent score.
However, assembling the forces was but the start. All the brass
and percussion instruments - including the sixteen timpani -
are period instruments and the brass ensembles include four
cornets à pistons in one group and, in another, a quartet
of ophicleides. Though the string players - and, I suspect,
their woodwind colleagues - play on modern instruments, they
do so in ‘period-informed’ style, especially as
regards vibrato. The choir plays its part also; they use French
pronunciation of the Latin text. This may unsettle Anglophone
listeners at first - most noticeably the way in which the vowel
‘u’ is pronounced - but one soon adjusts.
So, Paul McCreesh has done his homework - and the performers
use an edition of the score that he has made, based on the original
nineteenth century sources. The key question is, has he captured
the spirit of the work? Anyone who is familiar with his previous
scholarly but exciting recordings will not be surprised to learn
that the answer is emphatically in the affirmative.
I’ve heard some fine recordings of the Berlioz Requiem
in the past, including those by Previn, Munch (review),
Mitropoulos and Sir Colin Davis - his first recording with the
LSO; I’ve not heard his later Dresden version - see review.
This new recording is more than fit to take its place alongside
the very best.
The playing and choral singing are consistently superb. The
‘Big Moments’ register with tremendous power. For
example, the ‘Tuba mirum’ (CD 1, track 2, 5:12)
begins with an awesome chord from the massed brass players and
when the timpani join the fray (6:24) the thunderous, dull sound
made by the period drums is thrilling. When the basses then
proclaim the text they do so with magnificent thrust, yet without
any suggestion of forced tone. A few moments later, ‘Judex
ergo’ is overwhelming. Incidentally, McCreesh achieves
the not inconsiderable feat of keeping his four brass groups
in time and together; that’s something that is not managed
on all recordings. The Lacrymosa is comparably powerful
at times, suggesting the inexorable progress of an implacable
juggernaut - and in this movement the tenors attract special
notice; they are tireless in the face of the composer’s
unreasonable demands and despite these challenges they can still
sing the Pie Jesu with sweet tone. The opening of Rex
tremendae is suitably majestic but as this movement progresses
the flexibility with which the large choir sings the faster
music is most impressive.
Anyone who knows the Berlioz Requiem will be well aware that
the monumental moments are only a part of the story. Notwithstanding
the huge forces that he demands, Berlioz is very restrained
- almost austere - in his scoring of much of this work. Paul
McCreesh and his musicians are outstandingly successful in delivering
In the unaccompanied Quaerens me, a wonderful movement,
the unanimity of the choral singing is really something at which
to marvel when one considers how many singers are involved.
The ladies and tenors produce a lovely supple tone while the
basses provide a firm foundation for the ensemble. The Offertorium,
Domine Jesu Christe, is my favourite movement in the
work. Berlioz subtitled this Choeur des âmes du purgatoire
(Chorus of souls in purgatory) and it’s one of
the most imaginative parts of the work. The choir sings the
text, in unison, to a hypnotically repeated two-note phrase.
Meanwhile the thematic interest lies in the orchestra. The strings
have subdued fugal material while the woodwind weave beguiling
lines. It’s very difficult to balance all this but it
seems to me that McCreesh does so in a masterly way; every strand
is clear and when the choir is freed from its two-note ‘bondage’
towards the very end it’s a moment of beauty and release.
The Sanctus is another imaginatively scored movement
and another that’s difficult to bring off. McCreesh achieves
something of a coup by placing his tenor soloist at a
distance - he was high up in a gallery. Valery Gergiev did something
similar in a live performance that I reviewed
a couple of years ago and it’s most effective. Robert
Murray has a light tone. He also has quite a quick vibrato.
Some may find that troubling but I don’t feel it’s
excessive. In an extensive and very interesting interview in
the booklet, McCreesh very validly observes that this solo is
right in the haut-contre tradition. Murray sounds suitably
plangent and despite the merciless tessitura he manages to be
gently lyrical. The orchestral scoring is wonderfully subtle
during the passages in which the soloist is involved and when
the solo material is reprised the addition of gently brushed
cymbals and very quiet bass-drum strokes is mysterious and magical
and is superbly realised here. I was a little surprised by the
smooth legato with which McCreesh gets the choir to sing the
Hosanna until I re-read an essay by Michael Steinberg
in which he points out that Berlioz directs the choir to sing
this passage “without violence, sustaining the notes well
instead of accenting them one by one.” I’ve never
heard those instructions so precisely observed as on this recording.
The austere woodwind chords at the start of the Agnus Dei
are perfectly balanced. In this last movement Berlioz draws
together a number of thematic threads from earlier in the work,
providing something of a summation. The works ends with a wonderful,
gently glowing six-fold Amen, where Berlioz effects some
unexpected modulations, underpinning the singing and the string
arpeggios with the quiet thudding of funeral drums. McCreesh
treats this passage expansively, but just to the right extent,
drawing this outstanding account of the Requiem to a
So far I’ve concentrated on the performers, and rightly
so. However, it’s essential to acknowledge the heroic
work of the engineering team. The church in which the recording
was made sounds to have an ideal, resonant acoustic. That’s
been very intelligently used by the engineers. They have managed
the significant feat of giving us a great deal of detail, all
expertly integrated, while preserving a sense of space. This
is a huge challenge and one that was not completely met by the
Philips engineers who recorded Sir Colin Davis’s 1969
version in London’s Westminster Cathedral. There have
been great advances in recording technology over the last four
decades but even so the engineering here is most impressive.
The quiet passages are atmospherically reported. As for the
imposing moments, such as the Judex ergo, all I can say
is that I got the best results one afternoon when I had the
house to myself so there was no restraint on the volume control!
I noted with interest that two of the technical team - producer
Nicholas Parker and balance engineer Neil Hutchinson - were
also involved with McCreesh’s outstanding 2006 recording
of Haydn’s Creation (review).
For this latest recording they’re joined by recording
engineer Andrew Halifax.
I’m afraid I do have to register a couple of niggles over
the presentation. The discs come enclosed in a lavish, hardback
slip case. The documentation is good, including a large number
of black and white photos. Unfortunately, one or two basic details,
such as the catalogue number are absent and, most regrettably
of all, nowhere is there a track-list. You may be irritated
also, as I was, by the strange way in which the Polish version
of the booklet is presented as a mirror image of the English
version; in other words, if you leaf through the booklet from
the start then halfway through, where the language changes,
everything, including the remaining photographs, is upside down.
It’s simply bizarre and I hope this method of presentation
will not be repeated with future releases.
Up to now I’ve felt that Sir Colin Davis’s 1969
recording has fended off all subsequent challenges to retain
its place as the first choice for this work. However, despite
Sir Colin’s great wisdom and perceptiveness as a Berlioz
interpreter I think it must now yield the palm. McCreesh’s
interpretation is every bit as committed and inspired as Sir
Colin’s. However, he has the edge in three crucial ways.
Firstly, the instrumental sonorities are more intriguing and,
surely, more authentic, even if this isn’t entirely a
‘period’ performance. Secondly, though Sir Colin’s
chorus give him everything they’ve got, McCreesh’s
choir is outstanding - and the overall standard of choral singing
has, in any case, improved greatly over the last forty years.
Finally, the recorded sound on this new release is superb and
manages better than any I’ve previously heard to render
Berlioz’s monumental vision susceptible to domestic listening.
At last we have a recording that, in every respect, does full
justice to the Grande Messe des Morts.
I believe the next scheduled oratorio release from this source
will be Elijah, using the forces which Paul McCreesh
directed at the 2011 Promenade Concerts. I can hardly wait.