RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Grande Messe des Morts (1837) [88:42]
Robert Murray (tenor)
Gabrieli Players & Consort
Chetham’s School of Music Symphonic Brass Ensemble
Wrocław Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra/Paul McCreesh
rec. Mary Magdalene Church, Wrocław, 13-15 September 2010
Latin text and English and Polish translations included
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD 280 [48:25 + 40:17]
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 these passages.
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 pacific close.
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.
At last we have a recording that, in every respect, does full justice to the Grande Messe des Morts.